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Anaphylaxis is Nothing to Take Lightly

Severe allergies can be life-threatening. Here are some ways to prevent tragedy.

My son’s first and only visit to a local seafood restaurant proved nearly tragic.

Lou, 7 years old at the time, hungrily tossed into his mouth a handful of tiny breaded shrimp that arrived at the table with a huge side of French fries. Within minutes, he put his head down on the table and started to whimper – or so I thought.

He wasn’t crying; he was gasping for breath, his face, lips and tongue swollen, his airway blocked. He was suffering from anaphylaxis caused by eating the shrimp.

According to the National Institutes of Health, anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that can be life-threatening if not treated immediately.

Reactions include swelling, itching or a rash. Some people have trouble breathing, tightness in the chest or dizziness. Others have stomach cramps, nausea or diarrhea, or may lose consciousness.

Common causes include shellfish, tree nuts (like almonds or walnuts), peanuts, eggs, some medications like antibiotics or aspirin, latex, and insect stings (such as bees, wasps, hornets or fire ants).

Sometimes, even the most diligent person can get a reaction, but there are ways to prevent an onset of symptoms:

  1. If you have had a reaction in the past, make sure your doctor and dentist know so it is part of your medical record.
  1. If you are allergic to insect stings, wear protective clothing (long sleeves, long pants, shoes and socks) and spray insect repellent on exposed body parts when you're outdoors.
  2. Read the ingredient list on any packaged foods you are going to eat. If you are in a restaurant where ingredients may not be listed, ask the server or manager to inquire in the kitchen.

Lou was lucky. We called 9-1-1 and he was quickly taken to the local ER. He was lucky because I recognized the symptoms. I have severe allergies, as well, so anaphylaxis is nothing new.

Lou stays clear of any and all seafood, or food that might have come in contact with seafood items. He’s very careful and has no problem asking questions or letting folks know he has allergies. I've even walked out of places that are reluctant to share meal ingredients with me. Their loss is definitely my gain.

We both read labels almost obsessively – wouldn’t you? – and I wear a medical alert bracelet that warns emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and medical personnel that I am at risk for anaphylaxis.

Doctors recommend persons with allergies keep on hand a supply of antihistamine (Benadryl or its equivalent) or an “epi pen” which administers a drug called epinephrine that is only available with a prescription. (I had to use it only once.) But make sure the medication is not outdated.

And as always, common sense is the best defense, especially when you know you have severe allergies.

The Bergen County Department of Health Services has resources including audio visual aids and reading materials available for parents to help their children understand the importance of being careful when they suffer with severe allergies. And your family physician can assist you in determining if you have allergies and the best way to treat them.

Stay healthy!

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