An Allergist's Guide to Preparing for an Allergy Emergency

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Allergic reactions are scary and can be true medical emergencies. Reactions can occur within minutes to hours of an exposure to an allergic trigger.

These reactions can progress quickly and, in some cases, lead to anaphylaxis ( a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction) and even death. By taking steps ahead of time to prepare for an allergic emergency, you can be ready to act and improve your likelihood of a successful outcome.

Understand your triggers—and avoid them.

Although new allergies can develop at any time, it is imperative to avoid all known allergens. Food allergies occur in 8% percent of children and 4% of adults. The most common food allergens are milk, egg, soy, wheat, peanut, tree nuts, fish and shellfish; however, an allergy can occur to almost any food protein.

Latex, medications, and stinging-insect venoms (such as bees, wasps, hornets, yellow jackets and fire ants) also can cause severe allergic reactions. If you have ever experienced unusual symptoms after exposure to these or other allergens, see a board-certified allergist for testing. Your doctor can define which allergens will affect you and explain how best to avoid them. Avoidance is the only surefire way to prevent an allergy emergency from occurring.

Know how to identify the signs of an allergic reaction.

Fatalities due to an allergy often occur due to a delay in treatment. Quickly recognizing the signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction will allow you to respond rapidly and effectively. Symptoms of a mild allergic reaction may include itchiness, redness or flushing of the skin, lip or eye swelling, or hives. While these symptoms alone are not life threatening, symptoms can often progress and become more severe. Never ignore even the mildest of symptoms, and continue to monitor for worsening.  Severe symptoms may include throat and tongue swelling, unremitting vomiting, chest tightness, difficulty breathing (including coughing or wheezing), dizziness, headaches and low blood pressure. Life-saving medication known as epinephrine must be administered without delay for these severe symptoms in order to prevent death.

Prepare an allergy emergency kit.

In an allergy emergency, a quick response may be the difference between life and death. Having an allergy kit readily available and stocked with medication will facilitate early treatment. You can pack supplies in either a small bag or pouch or in a plastic container that can easily be transported. Have this kit with you at all times, including at school, work, parks, restaurants or anywhere else you go.  

Most importantly, keep at least two doses of epinephrine in your allergy kit. Most epinephrine auto-injectors are distributed in 2-packs; these packs should not be separated. Approximately one-third of patients require additional doses of epinephrine during an allergic reaction, so having just one auto-injector in your pack may not be enough. It goes without saying that you (as well as friends, coworkers and family members) should be familiar with your epinephrine auto-injector device and how to use it. There is no time during an emergency to try to figure out how to administer medication.

For milder reactions, it’s also wise to keep antihistamines (such as Benadryl) in your kit. If you have a history of asthma, also include your rescue asthma inhaler. Make sure to periodically check your kit’s medications for expiration dates (most are good for one year) and keep it refreshed with current medicines. In addition, avoid leaving your kit in extreme temperatures for long periods of time (such as in a car), as this can alter the effectiveness of the medication.

Create an allergy emergency action plan.

This plan should be written and carried in your allergy kit so responders can refer to an allergy emergency.  In general, this plan should list your allergies, your weight, and which medications and doses should be administered based on your symptoms. Also include emergency contact information, as well as your doctor’s name and phone number. While you should be familiar with the steps to take in an emergency, having a written action plan in your kit will allow others to administer aid if you’re unable to speak or initiate your own care.

Wear a medic alert bracelet.

Severe reactions can occur and progress rapidly, which may inhibit your ability to treat yourself or explain to others what is happening. A medical alert bracelet can advise first aid responders and medical providers about your allergies, and indicate to them an allergic reaction may be occurring. Additionally, if you are ever incapacitated for other reasons, a medic alert bracelet will warn medical providers of your allergies so you do not become inadvertently exposed to allergens during your treatment.

Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Preparing for an allergy emergency and familiarizing yourself with your action plan aren’t simply smart steps to take--they just might save your life.

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THIS CONTENT DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. This content is provided for informational purposes and reflects the opinions of the author. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified healthcare professional regarding your health. If you think you may have a medical emergency, contact your doctor immediately or call 911.