Skip links and keyboard navigation

Ana-phyl-what? Understanding anaphylaxis

Monday 15 May 2017

A woman with long, curly hair holds her hands to her throat, looking concerned and pained.
Do you know what to do if someone has a severe allergic reaction?

Anaphylaxis: it’s a scary looking word for a serious condition. But public awareness of this serious allergic reaction can make life for people with allergies a lot easier.

What is anaphylaxis?

When some people come in contact with a certain type of food, insect bites or stings, or medicines, their immune system reacts with it, resulting in an allergic reaction. Anaphylaxis is the name given to severe allergic reactions. Not everyone who has an allergy is at risk of anaphylaxis, but for those who are, the condition is serious and can be life-threatening.

While a person with severe allergies will usually be supported by a team of health professionals who can treat them during an attack, public awareness of anaphylaxis is important. If an adult or child is not with someone trained to treat them during an attack and is unable to treat themselves, first aid from a member of the public could be life-saving.

What does anaphylaxis look like?

While we often associate anaphylaxis with difficulty breathing, anaphylaxis can affect multiple organ systems, including cardiovascular (heart and blood), gastrointestinal (stomach and bowel) and dermatological (skin).

Not all allergic reactions will look the same or be as serious, depending on the person, their allergy and how they’ve come into contact with the allergen.

Someone with a mild or moderate allergic reaction might have:

  • swelling of lips, face or eyes
  • hives or welts on their skin
  • a tingling mouth
  • or pain in their stomach and vomiting.  

A severe or anaphylactic reaction may cause:

  • difficult or noisy breathing
  • swelling of the tongue
  • swelling or tightness of the throat
  • difficulty talking or a hoarse voice
  • wheezing or persistent cough
  • dizziness or collapse
  • or becoming pale and floppy (particularly in young children).

Symptoms of anaphylaxis usually begin within five to 30 minutes after exposure to the allergen, but could also occur hours later. A severe anaphylactic reaction might follow symptoms of a mild or moderate reaction like hives or welts, but anaphylaxis might occur without these symptoms appearing first.

School children sit and eat their lunch inside a classroom, one child with gappy teach chewing on a carrot stick.

How should anaphylaxis be treated?

Anaphylaxis is an emergency. If you suspect someone is having an anaphylactic reaction, or they have told you they are, the first thing to do is administer an EpiPen® if available, and call Triple Zero (000) for an ambulance.

If the person knows they have an allergy, they might be carrying an ASCIA Action Plan. This will tell you what symptoms the patient may complain of and what signs to look for. It will recommend how to treat the person while you wait for an ambulance. If they don’t have an action plan, follow the instructions from the emergency operator or visit the ASCIA website for emergency information.  

If they are not carrying a plan, or you can’t find it, begin first aid by ensuring that you and the person are in a safe place. Lie them down, and raise their legs if possible. If they are having difficulty breathing while lying flat, allow them to sit. Make sure that they do not stand or walk while you wait for an ambulance.

Epipen’s® can be used to treat anaphylaxis. These are a special, single-use syringe, pre-loaded with adrenalin which can reverse the anaphylaxis. You do not need to have a first aid certificate to use an EpiPen®, and each EpiPen® is printed with instructions on how to use it.

Watch the video below to learn more about anaphylaxis first aid and how to use an EpiPen®.

What else can I do to help people with severe allergies?

During Food Allergy Week each May, Australians are encouraged to be aware of food allergies and how they can help reduce the risk of a reaction for those living with food allergies.

You can help people with allergies by:

  • understanding that allergies can be serious and life-threatening
  • providing ingredients for food that you have prepared for others if requested
  • encouraging children to not share food and drinks
  • educating children that deliberately exposing other children to foods to which they are allergic is dangerous
  • taking steps to create a workplace that is safe for those with allergies
  • and taking the ASCIA ‘Anaphylaxis first aid’ e-training.
Last updated: 23 August 2017