As summer approaches and the northern hemisphere defrost, multitudes are freed from the confines of their inner sanctums. In other words, time to enjoy the outdoors! From soccer games to camping, golf to lounging by the pool, summer beckons.
With the summer fun come the summer dangers. One danger, that goes largely unnoticed except for those in peril, is the danger or serious allergic reaction. Even if you don’t suffer from allergies, it’s important to be able to identify when someone else is seized by a life-threatening allergic reaction, and what to do about it.
What are Allergic Reactions?
An allergic reaction is the body’s response to some substance that the immune system has deemed to be a threat. Although the biochemistry behind allergic reactions is quite complex, and thus beyond the scope of this article, a “quick review” of this process will be provided as a background before discussing the more severe types of allergic reactions.
All allergic reactions, be they mild, severe, or even life-threatening, begin with the introduction of an “allergen” into or onto the human body. An allergen is any substance that is (1) not normally present in the body and (2) is capable of inducing a physiologic response in which the body tries to neutralize or to expel the allergen. Common allergens include dust, mold, certain foods, potentially toxic industrial wastes, and insect / animal venom. And proper steps should be taken for dust mites control so as to make our environment healthy.
When the body detects the presence of an allergen, it first responds by having a special type of white blood cell release a chemical called Interleukin. Interleukin “copies” information from the allergen and then transports that information to other specialized white blood cells, causing them to create specific antibodies to counteract the allergen as well as to release chemicals called cytokines and histamines. It is these latter chemicals that cause the “runny nose” and “itchy eyes” of the typical allergic response to pollen or dust.
Anaphylaxis is the most dangerous form of allergic reaction and even its suspected presence constitutes a grave medical emergency. Anaphylactic reactions are usually triggered by the ingestion (eating) or injection (e.g. insect sting or medical hypodermic) of some substance that triggers an overwhelming response by the immune system.
In many cases of anaphylaxis, the victim will have previous medical history of reaction to a specific allergen even though that reaction itself was not anaphylactic in nature. In some instances, an anaphylactic reaction to a given substance may occur even if the victim has no history of previous reactions.
The physical signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis may include, but are not limited to: swelling (edema) of the lips, tongue, face, and neck; profuse sweating (diaphoresis); skin pallor, often followed by a bluish discoloration of the lips (cyanosis); difficulty breathing; wheezing; a weak, rapid pulse; loss of consciousness, and seizures. Should any of these sign / symptoms develop shortly after the victim is exposed to a previously-known allergen, the diagnosis of anaphylactic reaction must be presumed and the local Emergency Medical Service must be contacted at once!
In some cases, those with a history of severe allergic reactions will carry a small, personal, emergency kit containing a premeasured dose of a medication such as epinephrine. The presence of such a kit may be given on a Medic-Alert bracelet or necklace. If such a kit is found, AND you are capable of following the instructions provided with the kit, this is the one time that you should act PRIOR to the arrival of your local EMS since the fatality rate in acute anaphylactic reaction can be as high as 50%.
In many cases, asthma attacks are triggered by the inhalation of allergens that are present within the victim’s immediate environment, such as animal dander, industrial chemicals, mold, or dust. As is well-known to asthma victims and their families, the primary symptoms of asthma are wheezing and difficulty breathing (“air hunger”).
Fortunately, asthma is usually controlled by medication and avoidance of known allergens. However, if asthma symptoms persist longer than 2 hours in spite of adequate medication, or should symptoms worsen, the asthma victim should receive an evaluation by an Emergency Room physician.