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Treating Life-Threatening Allergies

Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that needs emergency medical treatment. It can happen in seconds or even hours after contact with something the person is allergic to, like foods, insect venom, latex, or medication. In rare cases, exercise and physical activity also can trigger anaphylaxis.

Call 911 immediately if someone has symptoms of anaphylaxis. Symptoms may include:

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  • Hoarseness
  • Tightness in the throat
  • Wheezing, or trouble breathing or swallowing
  • Hives
  • Swollen eyes or lips
  • Runny nose
  • Dizziness
  • Abdominal pain or diarrhea
  • Confusion
  • Anxiety

If an epinephrine shot (such as Auvi-Q or EpiPen) is available, that may temporarily stop symptoms, but it's not a cure -- you still need to get emergency medical care for the person, even if he seems to be OK after treatment.

Epinephrine is a kind of adrenaline that is very strong and fast-acting. It is given with an easy-to-use auto-injector and is available by prescription only. If a doctor has prescribed an auto-injector for you, carry two at all times.  

How to Use an Epinephrine Injector

  1. Inject epinephrine at the first sign of a life-threatening reaction and call 911 right away. Do not move the person who's having symptoms unless he is in an unsafe place.
  2. Have the person sit down, lie down, or stay in the most comfortable position for breathing.
  3. Stay calm.
  4. Be aware that epinephrine may cause short-term symptoms that are like those of anaphylaxis.
  5. If an insect stinger is present, remove it with a gentle brushing motion. Do not pinch the stinger. That may release more venom.
  6. Listen and watch to make sure the person's airway stays open.
  7. If you are trained in CPR, give it if needed. If the person has asthma as well as allergies, you can give them their inhaler. Do so after you have given them the epinephrine.

In an emergency, a second shot of epinephrine may be used if symptoms persist. Doctors and nurses may also give other medications.

Anaphylaxis: Are You Ready?

  • Store epinephrine in a dark place and at room temperature.
  • Check the expiration date regularly. If expired, replace it. But remember, it's better to use expired epinephrine in an emergency than nothing at all.
  • Check the liquid through the window of the auto-injector. If it is not clear, replace the unit.
  • Have more than one auto-injector available at all times. For instance, keep one at home, in your car, and at your child's school, if you have a child with allergies. Make sure the person wears a medical alert bracelet or neck tag.
  • If you have a child with allergies, write an anaphylaxis emergency action plan for your child’s teachers and other adults he or she spends time with. Be certain that the nurse at your child's school stores and uses epinephrine properly.
  • If you're flying, tell your airline and flight attendant ahead of time about any allergies.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on February 12, 2014

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