Severe Allergy and Anaphylaxis FAQs

Finding out your child has a potentially life-threatening (severe) allergy naturally leads to a lot of questions. Below, David Fleischer, M.D., a pediatric allergist/immunologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado answers some common FAQs about severe allergies and anaphylaxis. (For more specific questions, consult your child’s allergy healthcare provider.)

What causes anaphylaxis?

Anaphylaxis is a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction that has many possible triggers, says Fleischer. Food allergy is the most common cause of anaphylaxis. Some common trigger foods are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat, and soy. Anaphylaxis can also be caused by allergies to biting or stinging insects, latex, and certain medications (including penicillin).

What are the symptoms of anaphylaxis?

Anaphylaxis is unpredictable, occurring quickly and without warning. Signs that someone is developing anaphylaxis are often noticeable within minutes of exposure to an allergen. They include breathing problems, chest pain, hives or skin redness, tightness in the throat, swelling of the lips and/or tongue, nausea, dizziness, a decrease in blood pressure, and/or fainting. Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency: Immediate treatment and urgent medical attention are needed as soon as symptoms are detected.

How does an allergic reaction become anaphylaxis?

An allergy is an immune system response to a substance that the body mistakenly perceives as a threat. During anaphylaxis, the immune system releases abnormally large amounts of certain chemicals, such as histamine, which trigger symptoms.

How is anaphylaxis treated?

Epinephrine is the only first-line treatment for anaphylaxis. Also known as adrenaline, epinephrine is one of the body’s naturally occurring hormones. It helps to relieve symptoms of anaphylaxis by relaxing muscles in the lungs to improve breathing, increasing blood pressure, stimulating the heart, and reducing hives and swelling. If anaphylaxis occurs, you should immediately administer an epinephrine auto-injector and seek emergency medical attention.

What is cross-contact?

This term refers to foods or other surfaces that have come into contact with allergens. Cross-contact can occur during the preparation or handling of food, or during the manufacturing process when different foods are made at the same plant. “Cross-contact can be a problem for patients with severe food allergies, especially those with low thresholds,” says Fleischer. To reduce the risk of exposure, read food labels carefully and prepare foods in a sanitized area.

Will my child outgrow a severe allergy?

A main factor in determining if a child will outgrow a severe allergy is the allergen itself. “Most children don’t outgrow peanut, tree nut, or seafood allergies,” says Fleischer. But many will leave their milk, egg, soy, and wheat allergies behind as they age.

Disclaimer: The experiences, opinions, and suggestions recounted in this article are not intended as medical advice. They are unique to the family depicted and do not necessarily represent the “typical” experience of families with a child who has severe allergies. Families should talk to their healthcare professionals regarding the treatment of severe allergies.