Most of us with food allergies know the feeling all too well. Our cheeks become flushed as a warmth rushes over our body. Tiny razor blades begin to slice the inside of our throat. With each gasp for air, our chest tightens like a vice and our breathing becomes more restricted. Before long, our skin burns with an uncontrollable itch, and our worst fears are realized: we’re going into anaphylactic shock.
As someone with a life-long allergy to peanuts, I’ve experienced these frightening symptoms too many times to count. An accidental cookie here. A regretful burrito there. Once the symptoms and fear of death subside, however, I find myself wondering: what exactly happens during anaphylaxis?
Turns out, it’s really just your body trying to defend itself.
The Immune System: Your Body’s Best Defense
Think of your immune system like a trigger-happy defense system. When your body comes in contact with an allergen (such as peanuts), your immune system recognizes the invader and tries to neutralize the threat. It overreacts by producing antibodies called Immunoglobulin E (IgE). These antibodies, in turn, flood your system with histamine and other inflammatory chemicals that cause an allergic reaction. Each type of IgE has specific “radar” for each type of allergen. That’s why some people are allergic to eggs while others are only allergic to tree nuts.
Symptoms of Anaphylaxis
Your body’s unique response can also vary depending on the severity of your allergy. Some people with milder reactions may only experience a slight itching of their skin or mild stomach discomfort. People with more serious allergies, however, may experience a rapid onset of other life-threatening symptoms.
1. The Uh-Oh Symptom
If you’ve mistakenly eaten food you’re allergic to, you’re familiar with the Uh-Oh symptom — that gut feeling you get when you’ve ingested something you shouldn’t have. It’s your body telling you that something bad is about to happen. The Uh-Oh symptom is an almost imperceptible early warning sign of anaphylaxis but may in fact be the most important one.
2. Central Nervous System
We already touched on the Uh-Oh symptom, however inflammation to the central nervous system can cause a variety of other sensations. You may feel lightheaded or dizzy. Your eyes, lips, or tongue may begin to swell. Anaphylaxis also can cause mental confusion, anxiety, slurred speech, and weakness.
One of the more obvious signs of anaphylaxis happens to your skin. What may start out as itchiness or redness can develop into painful welts or hives. When your skin starts changing color, this is a telltale sign your body is going into shock.
4. Digestive System
Generally categorized as milder symptoms of anaphylaxis, digestive symptoms such bloating, cramps, and abdominal pain are nevertheless quite unpleasant. Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea isn’t exactly a walk in the park, either.
5. Respiratory System
Inflammation of the bronchial tissues can cause swelling and build-up of fluid in the lungs. This, in turn, can trigger wheezing and a shortness of breath. A feeling of tightness in the chest is a common sign of respiratory distress and requires immediate medical attention.
6. Circulatory System
During anaphylaxis, small blood vessels called capillaries begin to leak blood into your tissues. You may start to experience pulse and heart palpitations as your blood pressure drops. Suddenly, your vitals organs are no longer getting the blood and oxygen they need, and you go into anaphylactic shock. This is a life-threatening medical emergency and, if left untreated, can cause damage to internal organs and cardiac arrest.
The More You Know
As frightening as all of this sounds, this information isn’t meant to scare you. I’m a firm believer that knowledge is power, and the more you understand what’s going on during anaphylaxis, the better equipped you’ll be to deal with it. When you can identify the signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction, you can respond quickly to an allergy emergency and have a plan to effectively treat these symptoms.
Disclaimer: The information in this article is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content, including text, graphics, images and information, contained on or available through this article is for general information purposes only.