True or false: You can die from a bee sting. If you answered “true,” you are correct. Bee stings, which are annoying but usually not a concern for most people, can be fatal to someone who is hypersensitive to bee sting venom. When stung, the venom can induce an allergic reaction that affects the entire body. In these rare cases, the body mistakenly identifies the venom as an allergy. The intensity of the allergic reaction varies, but it can be fatal. This serious allergic response is called anaphylaxis.
Introduction to Anaphylaxis
Anaphylaxis means “against protection.” In essence, anaphylaxis is the body’s inability to protect itself against allergens.
Allergens are substances that cause the body’s defense mechanism, also known as the immune system, to overreact to typically harmless substances. Symptoms usually include runny nose, itchy eyes, and itchy skin. Anaphylaxis is a serious, hypersensitive, and potentially fatal allergic response. When any foreign substances, also referred to as antigens, enter the body, the immune system produces certain antigen-specific protein substances called antibodies, or immunoglobulins. This process of producing immunoglobulins specific to certain antigens is called sensitization.
When a person’s sensitized immune system comes into contact with the antigen once again, these antibodies recognize the antigen, and cause the cells of the immune system to release inflammatory chemical substances known as histamines. These chemical substances produce the various symptoms of anaphylaxis such as reduced blood pressure, breathing problems, swelling, dizziness, and loss of consciousness.
Anaphylaxis symptoms can begin within minutes of exposure to the allergen, or may take an hour or longer to develop. Some of the most common symptoms include:
Skin reactions: Itching, flushing, swelling or pale skin
Breathing problems: Constriction of the throat or airways, swollen tongue or throat
Other symptoms may include dizziness, nausea, fainting, abdominal cramps, wheezing, diarrhea, rapid and irregular pulse, and low blood pressure.
In acute cases, blood pressure may drop suddenly. Swelling or inflammation may occur in the respiratory tract causing breathlessness and choking, symptoms that can be life-threatening if not treated in time. Again, these symptoms may develop within minutes, and, in some cases, they can last for days.
Anaphylaxis is a very rare condition, but there are several allergen triggers. Some of the more common causes include:
• Fish and shellfish such as shrimp, lobster, and crab
• Eggs and egg products
• Peanuts or tree nuts such as walnuts, pecans, cashews, or hazelnuts
• Milk or milk products (in some children)
• Antibiotics, especially penicillin or penicillin-based medicines
• Stings from insects such as bees, wasps, yellow jackets, hornets, fire ants, and sawflies
• Aspirin or other over-the-counter pain relievers
• Allergy shots
• Medical dyes used in radiological procedures
• Muscle relaxants used in anesthesia
• Latex products such as surgical gloves, medical products, and various rubber products for home use
• Aerobic exercise such as jogging or walking
If you have a history of anaphylaxis, talk to your doctor about having an emergency kit available. This kit contains all of the items required to provide immediate aid in the case of anaphylactic shock. Your doctor will prescribe the medicines required and recommend additional items to store in this emergency kit. Some of these items may include:
Epinephrine shot: Epinephrine, which needs to be injected into your arm or leg, is one of the most important medications used to counter anaphylactic shock.
Antihistamines: Your doctor may prescribe a tablet, injection, ointment, or lotion form of antihistamines to stop the specific allergic reaction.
Seek immediate medical assistance if you suspect you may be experiencing anaphylactic shock. If you have an anaphylaxis emergency kit, take the shot of epinephrine yourself or with the help of someone near you. Follow your doctor’s instructions regarding all prescribed antihistamine medicine. If you are susceptible to anaphylactic shock, inform your family and friends about the substance that can trigger an allergic reaction, and teach them how to use the emergency kit.
After Anaphylactic Shock
After treatment for anaphylaxis, you should be able to recover quickly and resume your daily activities. To prevent any recurrence, ask a friend or relative to stay with you and keep an eye on you for at least 24 hours after the anaphylaxis. It may be necessary for a doctor to take blood and urine samples to confirm anaphylaxis. This is very important; a proper diagnosis can help you avoid a recurrence of anaphylaxis in the future.
Always share your entire medical history with your doctor, and inform them if you have had an anaphylactic episode in the past. Check with your doctor about whether you require any desensitization shots, and ask about other possible allergens that should be avoided. If you are allergic to insect stings, make sure you wear protective clothing when you go outside. If you are allergic to a certain food, avoid eating not only that particular food, but any foods that may come into contact with it.
Make sure you wear a medical emergency bracelet to inform others about your condition. Always keep an anaphylactic emergency kit when you travel. Let your family and friends know what they should do in case you experience anaphylactic shock.
Though anaphylaxis is a life-threatening allergic reaction, it is very rare. The majority of people will never experience anaphylaxis. If you are at risk, prevention is the best form of treatment. If you know the cause of a previous case of anaphylaxis, avoid the cause, whether it is penicillin, insect stings, certain foods, X-ray dyes, rubber materials, or strenuous exercise. Some of the symptoms of anaphylaxis include serious skin reactions, swelling of the tongue and throat, nausea, and loss of consciousness. If you have a history of anaphylaxis, always keep the anaphylaxis emergency kit within reach. Have several kits, each in a location that is commonly frequented. This may include the workplace, home, and the car.