Anatomy of an Allergic Reaction: 6 Major Symptoms of Anaphylaxis

Daniel Bates
Apr 13, 2018 · 4 min read

Most of us with food allergies know the feeling all too well. Our cheeks become flushed as a warmth rushes over our body. Tiny razor blades begin to slice the inside of our throat. With each gasp for air, our chest tightens like a vice and our breathing becomes more restricted. Before long, our skin burns with an uncontrollable itch, and our worst fears are realized: we’re going into anaphylactic shock.

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Photo courtesy of MARGOUILLAT PHOTO/SHUTTERSTOCK

As someone with a life-long allergy to peanuts, I’ve experienced these frightening symptoms too many times to count. An accidental cookie here. A regretful burrito there. Once the symptoms and fear of death subside, however, I’ve often found myself wondering: what exactly happens during anaphylaxis?

Turns out, it’s really just your body trying to defend itself.

The Immune System: Your Body’s Best Defense

Think of your immune system like a trigger-happy defense system. When your body comes in contact with an allergen (such as peanuts), your immune system recognizes the invader and tries to neutralize the threat. It overreacts by producing antibodies called Immunoglobulin E (IgE). These antibodies, in turn, flood your system with histamine and other inflammatory chemicals that cause an allergic reaction. Each type of IgE has specific “radar” for each type of allergen. That’s why some people are allergic to eggs while others are only allergic to tree nuts.

(: https://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/conditions-dictionary/immunoglobulin-e-(ige))

Symptoms of Anaphylaxis

Your body’s unique response can also vary depending on the severity of your allergy. Some people with milder reactions may only experience a slight itching of their skin or stomach discomfort. People with more serious allergies, however, may experience a rapid onset of other life-threatening symptoms.

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Photo courtesy of Healthline Media

The Uh-Oh Symptom

If you’ve mistakenly eaten food you’re allergic to, you’re familiar with the Uh-Oh symptom — that gut feeling you get when you’ve ingested something you shouldn’t have. It’s your body telling you that something bad is about to happen. The Uh-Oh symptom is an almost imperceptible early warning sign of anaphylaxis but may in fact be the most important one.

Central Nervous System

We’ve already touched on the Uh-Oh symptom, but inflammation to the central nervous system can cause a variety of other sensations. You may feel lightheaded or dizzy. Your eyes, lips, or tongue may begin to swell. Anaphylaxis also can cause mental confusion, anxiety, slurred speech, and weakness.

Skin

One of the more obvious signs of anaphylaxis happens to your skin. What may start out as itchiness or redness can develop into painful welts or hives. When your skin starts changing color, this is a telltale sign your body is going into shock.

Digestive System

While generally categorized as milder symptoms of anaphylaxis, most people would describe digestive symptoms such bloating, cramps, and abdominal pain as quite unpleasant. Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea isn’t exactly a walk in the park, either.

Respiratory System

Inflammation of the bronchial tissues can cause swelling and build-up of fluid in the lungs. This, in turn, can trigger wheezing and a shortness of breath. A feeling of tightness in the chest is a common sign of respiratory distress and requires immediate medical attention.

Circulatory System

During anaphylaxis, small blood vessels called capillaries begin to leak blood into your tissues. You may start to experience pulse and heart palpitations as your blood pressure drops. Suddenly, your vitals organs are no longer getting the blood and oxygen they need and you go into anaphylactic shock. This is a life-threatening medical emergency and, if left untreated, can cause damage to internal organs and cardiac arrest.

( https://www.healthline.com/health/allergies/timeline-anaphylactic-reaction#go-to-the-er)

The More You Know

As frightening as all of this sounds, this information isn’t meant to scare you. I’m a firm believer that knowledge is power, and the more you understand what’s going on during an allergic reaction, the better equipped you’ll be to deal with it. When you can identify the signs and symptoms of an anaphylactic reaction, you can respond quickly to an allergy emergency and have a plan to effectively treat those symptoms.

Peanut Envy

Allergy-friendly articles and recipes for people with food…

Daniel Bates

Written by

Owner & Founder of Peanut Envy. Advocate for food allergy awareness. Allergic to peanuts and soy.

Peanut Envy

Allergy-friendly articles and recipes for people with food allergies

Daniel Bates

Written by

Owner & Founder of Peanut Envy. Advocate for food allergy awareness. Allergic to peanuts and soy.

Peanut Envy

Allergy-friendly articles and recipes for people with food allergies

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