Allergic reactions are sensitivities to substances called allergens that come into contact with the skin, nose, eyes, respiratory tract, and gastrointestinal tract. They can be breathed into the lungs, swallowed, or injected.
Allergic reactions are common. The immune response that causes an allergic reaction is similar to the response that causes hay fever. Most reactions happen soon after contact with an allergen.
Many allergic reactions are mild, while others can be severe and life-threatening. They can be confined to a small area of the body, or they may affect the entire body. The most severe form is called anaphylaxis or anaphylactic shock. Allergic reactions occur more often in people who have a family history of allergies.
Substances that don’t bother most people (such as venom from bee stings and certain foods, medications, and pollens) can trigger allergic reactions in certain people.
Although first-time exposure may only produce a mild reaction, repeated exposures may lead to more serious reactions. Once a person has had an exposure or an allergic reaction (is sensitized), even a very limited exposure to a very small amount of allergen can trigger a severe reaction.
Most severe allergic reactions occur within seconds or minutes after exposure to the allergen. However, some reactions can occur after several hours, particularly if the allergen causes a reaction after it has been eaten. In very rare cases, reactions develop after 24 hours.
Anaphylaxis is a sudden and severe allergic reaction that occurs within minutes of exposure. Immediate medical attention is needed for this condition. Without treatment, anaphylaxis can get worse very quickly and lead to death within 15 minutes.
Common allergens include:
Bee stings or stings from other insects
Foods, especially nuts, fish, and shellfish
Common symptoms of a mild allergic reaction include:
Hives (especially over the neck and face)
Watery, red eyes
Symptoms of a moderate or severe reaction include:
Abnormal (high-pitched) breathing sounds
Chest discomfort or tightness
Dizziness or light-headedness
Flushing or redness of the face
Nausea or vomiting
Swelling of the face, eyes, or tongue
Avoid triggers such as foods and medications that have caused an allergic reaction in the past. Ask detailed questions about ingredients when you are eating away from home. Carefully examine ingredient labels.
If you have a child who is allergic to certain foods, introduce one new food at a time in small amounts so you can recognize an allergic reaction.
People who know that they have had serious allergic reactions should wear a medical ID tag.
If you have a history of serious allergic reactions, carry emergency medications (such as a chewable form of Chlor-Trimeton and injectable epinephrine or a bee sting kit) according to your health care provider’s instructions.