Allergic Reactions Emergency First Aid: What to Do?

An allergic reaction occurs when the immune system reacts to something that rarely affects most people. Substances and environmental conditions can cause allergies, including the most popular type known as hay fever.
allergic reactions

Severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis) and allergy-related asthma attacks require emergency first aid. Mild reactions may cause eczema or watery eyes to more severe shortness of breath or wheezing. You must regard all severe reactions as a medical emergency requiring immediate first aid and a medical response. Anaphylaxis is the most serious type of allergic reaction and can be life-threatening.

To know what triggers your symptoms, testing for allergies is important to determine whether the body has allergic reactions to a recognized drug or substance. Allergy tests can be performed on blood, skin, or on a particular diet. If you have an allergy, the immune system, which is the natural defense system of your body, overreacts to something in your environment that you have inhaled, touched, or ingested. Your immune system controls how the body protects itself.

Common symptoms

Allergic reactions depend on what the person is allergic to. The parts of the body that will react include your:

  • skin
  • airways
  • nose
  • mouth
  • abdomen

Get instant medical help if you have these symptoms or a history of severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis) even if there are no symptoms:

  • difficulty breathing
  • tightness in the throat
  • feeling that the airways are closing
  • hoarseness or trouble speaking
  • swollen lips, tongue, or throat
  • nausea, abdominal pain, or vomiting
  • fast heartbeat or pulse
  • anxiety or dizziness
  • loss of consciousness

If you have severe allergies, you should keep two epinephrine injection kits with you at all times and be readily available. If you have any signs of anaphylaxis, use the auto-injector, even if the symptoms do not appear to be related to an allergy. You will not be harmed by using the auto-injector as a precaution. Call the emergency services even if you are administering the injection.

CPR for anaphylaxis

If the person you are with is not breathing, coughing, or moving, you may need to perform a CPR. This can be done without a formal CPR training. CPR involves carrying out chest presses, about 100 per minute, until paramedics arrive.

CPR for Children

  • For example, you are alone with a child or toddler who is unresponsive and not breathing (or just gasping), call the emergency service after 2 minutes of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).
  • If someone else is present, shout for the person to emergency service, and then have them locate the AED (defibrillator) right away while you start CPR.
  • If your child or toddler is unconscious but you see regular breathing, call for help and wait. A breathing child or baby does not need a CPR, but one that does not breathe or gasp does.

CPR for Adults

  • Tap the shoulder of the person and shout, “Are you OK?”
  • Look for a normal breath. Call the emergency service if there is no response.
  • Start your hands-only CPR.
  • Hands-Only CPR should not be used for adults whose cardiac arrest is due to overdose, near-drowning, or unsuspecting cardiac arrest. In such cases, do the conventional CPR combination of chest compression and rescue breathing.

Treatments for allergic reactions

Over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamines and decongestants may relieve minor symptoms of allergic reactions. Antihistamines prevent symptoms such as hives by blocking histamine receptors so that your body does not react to allergens. Decongestants clear your nose and are helpful for seasonal allergies. But don’t take it for over three days. These drugs are available in tablets, eye drops, and nasal sprays.

Many OTC medications can induce drowsiness, so stop taking them before driving or doing work that needs a lot of focus. Swelling, redness, and itching can be minimized with ice and topical creams (corticosteroids). If OTC medications don’t work, visit your doctor. Contact your doctor if you have allergic reactions to the drug.

Adrenaline auto-injectors

Adrenaline acts rapidly to reverse serious allergic reactions and adrenaline auto-injectors (EpiPens) are intended for use by people who are not medically qualified. Your doctor will prescribe an adrenaline auto-injector if you are at risk of anaphylaxis.

Food Allergies

Food allergy is triggered by the reaction of your immune system to the food when it is not required. With food allergies, the immune system is not responsible for this. It’s a problem with digesting food most of the time. For example, being allergic to milk differs from being unable to digest it properly because of lactose intolerance.

Some people come from families where allergies are common, not necessarily food allergies, but maybe hay fever, asthma or hives. If both of your parents have allergies, you’re more likely to have food allergies than if only one parent has allergies.

If you think you have a food allergy, visit your doctor to check what’s going on and get help with handling and treating it. Often allergic reactions to food can be severe, even life-threatening.

The best treatments for food allergies usually include avoiding food that triggers an allergic reaction. If you accidentally come in contact with or eat the food you are allergic to, OTC drugs can calm the reaction. However, these medications only help to ease hives or scratching.

Oral chromolyne can help with your other symptoms. It’s only available on a prescription, so talk to your doctor. You can also treat serious food allergies with epinephrine.

Plant Allergies

Poison ivy rash frequently occurs in a straight line because of the way the plant brushes against your skin. According to Mayo Clinic, poison ivy rash is caused by an allergic reaction to an oil resin called urushiol (u-ROO-she-ol). This oily resin is found in the leaves, stems and roots of poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac. Wash your skin immediately if you come into contact with this oil, unless you know you are not allergic to it.

Wash off the oil can reduce your chances of having a poison ivy rash. If you develop a rash, it can be very itchy and last for weeks. Mild cases of poison ivy rash may be treated at home with calming lotions and cool baths. You may need prescription medicine for a rash that is serious or widespread, particularly if it is on your face or genitals.

Insects Allergies

Most people may have an insect bite reaction, but the most serious reaction is an allergic one. A mild allergic reaction at the sting site may cause one or more of these symptoms:

  • Pain
  • Redness
  • Pimple-like spots
  • Mild to moderate swelling
  • Warmth
  • Itching

Extreme allergic reactions (also called anaphylactic reactions) are not that common. But when it happens, it’s an emergency. Symptoms may include:

  • trouble breathing
  • hives that appear as a red
  • swelling of the face, or itchy rash
  • swelling of the throat and tongue
  • wheezing or trouble swallowing
  • restlessness, anxiety and rapid pulse
  • dizziness or a sharp drop in blood pressure

Treat insect allergies using the following first-aid methods:

  • remove the stinger with an object
  • stop pulling or squeezing a pin
  • wash the surface with water and soap
  • after washing, add the antiseptic
  • using hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion
  • cover the area with a bandage on it
  • if swelling occurs, apply a cold compress to the area
  • take antihistamine to help ease itching, swelling, and hives
  • take aspirin to ease the pain

Pregnant women should not take OTC medications without their doctor’s permission. Kids aren’t allowed to take aspirin. This is because of the possibility of a rare but fatal disorder called Reye Syndrome.

Jellyfish Stings

According to Mayo Clinic, jellyfish stings are common issues for people swimming, wading or diving in seawater. Thousands of microscopic barbed stingers will inject you with the long tentacles of the jellyfish body.

Jellyfish stings vary in their intensity. Frequently, it causes acute pain and red, swollen lines on the skin. Some jellyfish stings can cause more whole-body (systemic) disease. In rare cases, jellyfish stings are life-threatening.

Most jellyfish stings get better at home care. Extreme reactions need emergency medical treatment.

If you get a jellyfish stings, wash the area with seawater or vinegar for 30 minutes. This is going to neutralize the jellyfish toxin. Apply something cold to the infected area to soothe your skin and relieve the discomfort. To minimize swelling, use hydrocortisone cream and antihistamine.

Drug allergies

In certain cases of drug allergy, the doctor should be able to recommend an alternative medicine. More severe reactions can involve antihistamines, corticosteroids, or epinephrine. Otherwise, a desensitization treatment may be advised by your doctor. This involves taking small doses of medicine before the body can control your dosage.

In March 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published a safety alert warning the public that epinephrine auto-injectors may have malfunctions. This could prevent a person from receiving life-saving care during an emergency. If a person has a prescription for an auto-injector epinephrine, they can see the manufacturer’s guidelines here and speak to their health care provider about safe use.

Bottom Line

Once you have had an allergic reaction, it is necessary to locate the source to prevent potential contact. For ingredient-specific allergies, review the ingredients of the product before purchasing. Applying lotion before walking or camping will help prevent poison ivy from spreading or absorbing into your skin. The more you monitor your allergen contact, the less likely you are to have allergic reactions. Make sure your family and friends know about your allergies and where you store your epinephrine auto-injector. Teaching your friends how to handle an allergic reaction will help you save your life.

References

Severe Allergic Reaction Treatment. webMD.

CPR for Children. webMD.

Hands-Only CPR for Adults. webMD.

Allergic Reaction Treatment. webMD.

Food allergy. NHS.

Food Allergy and Intolerance: Distinction, Definitions and Delimitation. 2016.

Poison ivy rash. Mayo Clinic.

Jellyfish stings. Mayo Clinic.

ANAPHYLAXIS. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

STINGING INSECT ALLERGY. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

Serious Allergic Reactions (Anaphylaxis). KidsHealth.

Important Safety Information on the EpiPen. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

FDA alerts patients and health care professionals of EpiPen auto-injector errors related to device malfunctions and user administration. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

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