Anaphylaxis is the most severe form of an allergic reaction

Anaphylaxis can happen quickly, affect different parts of the body, and be life threatening. Symptoms of anaphylaxis can start within minutes of encountering an allergen, and can include any of the following:

  • Skin: Itching, redness, swelling, hives, rash
  • Airway: Trouble breathing, swallowing, speaking, coughing, nasal congestion or hay fever-like symptoms
  • Stomach: Nausea, pain, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Heart: Weak pulse, pale/blue colour, weak, lightheaded, fainting, shock
  • Other: Anxiety, sense of doom, loss of consciousness

What causes anaphylaxis?

Food is the most common cause of anaphylaxis, but insect stings, medication, latex and exercise can also cause a reaction. The most common food allergens are:

  • Peanut
  • Soy
  • Sesame
  • Tree nuts (e.g., almond, cashew, hazelnut, pistachio)
  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Fish, shellfish and crustaceans

Using epinephrine

Epinephrine is a life-saving medication that can reverse the symptoms of an allergic reaction by:

  • Opening the airways by relaxing smooth muscles in the lungs
  • Improving blood pressure by constricting blood vessels
  • Increasing heart rate and work to reduce hives and swelling by stimulating the heart

Epinephrine is the drug form of adrenaline, a hormone that the body produces. It is the first line of treatment for those suffering from anaphylaxis and should be used before other medications. Epinephrine is administered through an auto-injector, such as an EpiPen, and those with allergies should know how to use it.

If you have received epinephrine, you should still go to the hospital for observation. While one shot of epinephrine is usually effective, it is possible to have a second reaction or for symptoms to recur hours after being exposed to the allergen.

Using an auto-injector

It is important to know how to use your auto-injector. If you have any questions about your auto-injector or how to use it, ask your doctor. Here are some tips for those who carry an auto-injector:

  • Carry your auto-injector with you at all times
  • Let people around you know about your allergy, that you carry an auto-injector, and teach them how to use it. Make sure your prescription is up to date and that your auto-injector has not expired
  • Make sure the epinephrine in your auto-injector is effective by making sure it is not stored in extreme heat or cold 

In case of an emergency

  • Give epinephrine at the first sight of an allergic reaction
  • Call 9-1-1 and tell them that someone is having an anaphylactic reaction
  • Give epinephrine again if there is no improvement in symptoms after the first dose of epinephrine is administered
  • Go to the nearest hospital for observation, even if the symptoms have stopped or improved
  • Call emergency contacts for the person that is having an allergic reaction (parent, guardian, spouse)

Severe food reaction handout

Use this handout to take with you or for display.