Anaphylaxis Basics – When Allergies Can Turn Deadly

What you need to know and how to prevent this severe allergic reaction

Anaphylaxis Basics - When Allergies Can Turn DeadlyAnaphylaxis is a serious allergic reaction that can be life-threatening. What happens is essentially the same thing that occurs with other milder allergic reactions, but in more than one place in the body at once, and to a more extreme degree. Anaphylaxis could bring on vomiting and an itchy mouth, for instance. Or it could lead to swelling of the respiratory passages severe enough to prevent breathing, or to full-blown anaphylactic shock; a drop in blood pressure that brings about fainting and dizziness and can lead to coma and even death. Here are the signs that anyone should be able to recognize, whether they have an allergic child or not.

Skin hives, swelling, itching, warmth, redness, rash

Respiratory (breathing) wheezing, shortness of breath, throat tightness, cough, hoarse voice, chest pain/tightness, nasal congestion or hay fever-like symptoms (runny, itchy nose and watery eyes, sneezing), trouble swallowing

Gastrointestinal (stomach) nausea, pain/cramps, vomiting, diarrhea

Cardiovascular (heart) pale/blue colour, weak pulse, dizzy/lightheaded, passing out, shock

Other anxiety, feeling of “impending doom,” headache

Approximately one to two per cent of Canadians live with the risk of an anaphylactic reaction, and many are diagnosed when they are children. Food is the most common cause of anaphylaxis but insect stings, medicine, latex or even exercise can also cause a reaction in some. The most common food allergens leading to anaphylaxis are peanuts, tree nuts, seafood, egg and milk products. To help avoid these dangerous episodes, it’s best to watch for and act upon early signs of food allergy in kids, since allergic reactions can get progressively worse. “Most likely, kids with food allergies will have had minor reactions as babies, such as eczema, hives, swelling and vomiting,” explains Chad. It’s probably a good idea to get your kids tested for food allergy if clues suggest there’s one lurking.

If you do learn that your child has an allergy that could lead to anaphylaxis, here is what you need to do to prepare for a potential emergency.

  • Always carry an epinephrine auto-injector for your child. Have a back-up dose, in case a second one is required. Make sure someone else knows where it is.
  • Know how to administer epinephrine and educate caregivers and teachers who would administer it if you weren’t around. There are two types of injectors: Visit or for step-by-step instructions on how to use whichever your child’s been prescribed (product instructions are not interchangeable). Practise with epinephrine trainers.
  • Get your child medical alert jewelry, so that others know about allergies and other medical conditions. You can get fun, themed beaded bracelets to make this more appealing for your child.
  • If a reaction occurs, administer the epinephrine and then call 911. Tell the dispatcher that someone is having a life-threatening allergic reaction and that an ambulance is required immediately. Request more epinephrine.
  • Even if symptoms are mild or have stopped, go to the hospital. Stay there for four to six hours, since reactions can be prolonged, delayed or can return.
  • Have your child carry an anaphylaxis emergency plan, which contains his photo ID and important allergy information, including a list of the signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis, what to do in an emergency and who to contact. You can download and print this form at

peanut safety 101

If it seems like there’s a large focus on peanuts, that’s because peanut is the leading cause of severe, life-threatening and even fatal allergic reactions — and it can take just a trace amount to cause a life-threatening reaction. That’s why parents who have a child with a peanut allergy are always on high alert for possible exposure, whether they’re scrutinizing food labels, preparing meals with due caution, or practising strict hygiene in the kitchen to avoid cross-contamination. But other parents and their kids need to take safety measures too, in order to prevent exposure among allergic kids at play dates, parties, in carpools, or just at school. Here are some things you can do to ensure kids are peanut-free at school and home.

  • Get your kids wash their hands and mouths after eating and before going to school, play dates or other social gatherings, especially after eating/touching food with nuts.
  • When packing lunch or bringing snacks to school, daycare or playgroups, parents should not only avoid peanut butter and peanut-laced stuff, but they should make sure that kids don’t bring food products that say “may contain nuts.” Don’t assume products are peanut-free either. Scan food labels of baked goods, candy, chips and other less obvious sources of nuts. To play it safe, stick with packaged goods that promise a peanut-free manufacturing process.
  • Avoid buying anything from a bulk bin to avoid cross-contamination and exposure to unlabelled ingredients.
  • Don’t offer a food-allergic child anything to eat unless you clear it first with the parents. If parents don’t mention food allergies, ask just in case.
  • Make sure that kids don’t share food, drinks or any utensils.
  • When preparing food, avoid cross-contamination by using only clean dishes and utensils. Keep foods separate and open fresh butter or a new jar of jam for allergic guests. Clean surfaces that may contain food residue.

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