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How can I tell if someone is in anaphylactic shock?

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Updated January 24, 2014

Question: How can I tell if someone is in anaphylactic shock?

Anaphylactic shock is the most dangerous of all allergic reactions. A decrease in blood pressure leaves the brain starving for oxygen. Often, there will also be inflammation in the lungs resulting in severe shortness of breath. The combination is deadly. Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that involves more than one body system. A typical allergic reaction may cause itching or some wheezing in the lungs, but an anaphylactic reaction will cause both or a combination of several other less common symptoms.

Answer: There are two important ways to tell if someone is suffering from anaphylactic shock. First, by identifying the symptoms of anaphylactic shock. Second, by identifying the exposure to an allergen that causes anaphylactic shock.

Symptoms of Anaphylactic Shock

Anaphylactic shock is primarily an allergic reaction. To identify anaphylactic shock, first look for symptoms of allergy:

  • Itching
  • Red, raised, blotchy skin (hives)
  • Wheezing

Anaphylactic shock happens when the victim shows signs of low blood pressure:

  • Confusion
  • Weakness
  • Pale color
  • Unconsciousness

Anaphylaxis or anaphylactic shock often have symptoms of shortness of breath:

  • Unable to speak more than one or two words
  • Sitting straight up or with hands on knees
  • Gasping for breath
  • Pursing lips to breathe
  • Using neck muscles to take breaths

Identify the Allergen

It's easier to identify anaphylactic shock if there is a known allergen. For instance, those with allergies to bee stings will usually know they've been stung. Sometimes, however, there is no known allergen and the victim is simply developing symptoms of anaphylaxis. Anyone who's had allergic reactions in the past should be aware of any symptoms -- especially if no allergen has been identified. If you don't know what it is that makes you sick, you don't know when you've been exposed.

The situation can give you clues to figure out whether this is anaphylaxis. People with food allergies are more likely to have anaphylaxis while eating -- even when they don't think they're eating the food they are allergic to.

Anaphylactic Shock Treatment

Once you've identified an allergic reaction, treatment depends on how bad the reaction is. Simple allergic reaction treatment includes preventing the reaction from developing into anaphylaxis by taking Benadryl. On the other hand, treatment for anaphylaxis or anaphylactic shock may require epinephrine.

Source:

Krohmer, Jon. First Aid Manual. American College of Emergency Physicians. 2002. New York, NY.

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