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What Every Parent Needs To Know About Life-Threatening Allergic Reactions

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An alarming 50 million Americans may be at risk of having a life-threatening allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. Insect sting allergies cause 40-100 deaths every year, and it is believed that 8% of children under age three in the United States have food allergies.

Given these statistics, it is crucial that all parents know how to recognize the symptoms of anaphylaxis and what to do if they suspect their children have this life-threatening reaction to an allergen. Here's what every parent should know. 

Allergens that Can Cause Anaphylaxis

Whether you are trying to keep your child from having a life-threatening allergic reaction or trying to determine what caused your child to end up in the ER fighting for his or her life, it's important to always keep a watchful eye on young children when these common anaphylaxis triggers are present: 

  • stinging insects, including bees, fire ants, hornets, yellow jackets, and wasps
  • foods, including milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish 
  • medication, particularly penicillin 

Symptoms of Anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that affects the entire body and, when not treated promptly, can lead to death. Here are some symptoms of anaphylaxis. 

  • skin starts to itch and hives start to form
  • the tongue, throat, and uvula swell, which results in difficulty swallowing and breathing
  • nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • the loss of control of urine and bowel movements
  • lethargy and sudden drop in blood pressure 
  • heart attack
  • unconsciousness 

Variables by Age Group

It's important to understand that life-threatening allergic reactions can appear differently in younger age groups. 

  • Infants and toddlers. The symptoms can be difficult to identify in infants and very young children because the symptoms also occur in healthy babies and toddlers. Loss of bladder control, drooling, spitting up, flushed cheeks, and crying are signs of anaphylaxis in small children. Sometimes infants experiencing anaphylaxis suddenly become lethargic with poor muscle tone, which could look like the baby fell asleep. Since these are things that healthy little ones do normally, parents may not react quickly enough to save their children's lives. 
  • Preschoolers. Children in this age group may communicate with you that they feel scared. One of the symptoms of anaphylaxis is the feeling of doom. The individual panics and has a feeling that something very bad is happening. Another thing that a preschooler may do is point into their throat to try to show you their swollen, fiery red uvula because their throat will be painful and tight. The uvula is the structure that hangs suspended in the back of the throat. It's a good idea to take a look at your child's uvula when he or she is healthy so you know what it normally looks like. 

Urgent Care & Allergy Testing 

If you notice these symptoms in your child, it is crucial that you take your child to the ER immediately. Your child needs epinephrine, which is a life-saving medication that will increase their adrenaline. He or she will also need antihistamine, which will likely be given to them intravenously. Your child will be hooked up to monitors for their heart, lungs, and brain. He or she will also be put on oxygen, and may be incubated if their throat swelled shut. 

Do not try to determine what caused the allergic reaction until after your child is in the care of the ER staff. That's when you can start to think about what may have caused the allergic reaction. The doctors will be able to perform allergy testing through blood work to figure out what your child is allergic to rather than expose your child to an allergen in a pin-prick skin test. Most subsequent reactions are much worse, including exposure to the allergen during testing procedures. 

If your child has a life-threatening allergic reaction, he or she will be prescribed an epinephrine auto-injector. It is crucial that this medication is kept close to your child at all times and used promptly (while heading to the ER) if they have another severe allergic reaction.

For more information, contact an allergist like Diane L. Ozog, MD, SC.