The Complete Guide to Allergic Reactions | Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention

Date Created: 03/24/2017
By Christopher Hamann, M.D., ABEM, ACEP

When it comes to allergies, the numbers are increasing. They affect over 30 percent of adults and 40 percent of children. Allergic diseases such as asthma are the fifth leading type of chronic disease in the United States. People visit the emergency room about 200,000 times each year because of food allergies and around 10,000 people stay in the hospital each year because of food allergies.

In the guide below, we will discuss various types of allergic reactions; the symptoms associated with it, and various types of treatment that are out there.

What is an allergy?

An allergy is when your immune system reacts to some sort of foreign substance, which is called an allergen. It is caused by something you inhaled, ate, touched or were injected with. Reactions vary and can be something as minor as a sneeze, runny nose, itchy eyes or an irritated throat. Unfortunately, in severe cases, reactions can cause hives, rashes, trouble breathing, asthma attacks or even death. The most severe type of reaction is called anaphylaxis or anaphylactic shock.

Allergic reactions can be isolated to a certain location on the body or can be widespread. Substances that don't bother most people can cause an allergic reaction in others. Common allergens include:

  • Insect bites
  • Venom from bee stings or other insects
  • Certain foods, such as nuts or shellfish
  • Medicines
  • Pollens
  • Animal dander
  • Plants

Anaphylaxis or Anaphylactic Shock

Anaphylaxis or anaphylactic shock is the most severe reaction when it comes to allergens. It is a whole-body allergic reaction to a chemical that has become an allergen. After a person is exposed to venom or other irritant, their body is sensitized to it. When it happens again, an allergic reaction can occur and this reaction can be anaphylaxis, which comes on quickly. In this case, the body starts to release histamine and other substances, which cause airways to tighten and other symptoms associated with anaphylaxis can include:

  • Feeling anxious
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Hives
  • Itchiness
  • Swelling of face, eyes or tongue
  • Nausea and vomiting

Testing for Allergies

Allergy testing can be done as skin tests or as blood tests. They are done under medical supervision and can help ascertain what an individual is allergic to.

Skin Test

During a skin test, a person is pricked on the surface of the back of the forearm with several different allergens they are testing. For example, if your doctor is testing you for shellfish, they can place prick on you arm on the test area with crab, mollusks, lobsters and other shellfish allergen. If any of the area where you are being tested turns itchy or becomes swollen, then there is likelihood that you are allergic.

Blood Tests

An allergy blood test is often used due to several reasons:

1. The patient is taking a medication that can interfere with skin testing

2. The individual suffers from a severe skin condition such as eczema or psoriasis

3. Testing with a strong allergen might cause an extra large positive reaction

4. For small children and babies, a single needle stick to obtain blood is better than several skin tests/pricks on the skin.

As skin tests show results relatively immediately, if you do show signs of a reaction, then you doctor may do additional testing and also will most likely give you a prescription of an injectable epinephrine pen, which should be carried with you at all times.

What To Do If You or Someone is having an Allergic Reaction

Regardless of the severity of the reaction, if this is the first time the individual is having the reaction, it is important to seek medical attention

Mild to Moderation Allergic Reaction: Even if the reaction is mild, the symptoms may be scary, so it’s important to keep the person calm, as anxiety can exacerbate the situation, and make symptoms worse. The next thing is to try and identify what is causing the reaction, so they can avoid having further contact with the irritant.

Severe Allergic Reaction: If the individual is having a severe reaction, then check. A sign of throat swelling is a very hoarse or whispered voice, or coarse sounds when the person is breathing in air. If the allergic reaction is from a bee sting, scrape the stinger off the skin with something firm (such as a fingernail or plastic credit card). Do not use tweezers or try and squeeze the stinger as it can release even more venom. If the person has emergency allergy medicine on hand, help the person take or inject the medicine. Avoid oral medicine if the person is having difficulty breathing.


While you may be allergic to various foods or insects, you can’t do anything really to stop being allergic to these things. What you can do is try to prevent allergic reactions.  Some helpful tips are:

·         Avoid foods and medicines that have caused an allergic reaction in the past.

·         People who have had serious allergic reactions should wear a medical ID tag and carry emergency medicines such as injectable epinephrine or a bee sting kit.

·         Do not use your injectable epinephrine on anyone else. They may have a condition that could be made worse by this drug.

·         If you have a child who is allergic to certain foods, introduce a small amount of one food at a time, so you can recognize an allergic reaction.

When it comes to allergies and allergic reactions, GuideWell Emergency Doctors can help with both. We are a high-quality, cost-effective care alternative for unscheduled medical needs serving the Orlando market. Our team of board certified emergency medicine physicians and medical staff are prepared to treat major medical conditions and minor urgent care needs for patients of all ages.

Christopher Hamann, M.D., ABEM, ACEP

Dr. Hamann is board certified with the American Board of Emergency Medicine. He is a graduate of the Medical College of Wisconsin and completed his residency in Emergency Medicine at the University of Florida HSC, Jacksonville, Florida. Dr. Hamann has held positions as Staff Physician at Cleveland Clinic Hospital-Naples and as Assistant Director of Emergency Medicine at Physicians Regional Medical System in Naples, Florida. Dr. Hamann has many interests including architecture, landscape design, surfing, paddle boarding, mountain biking, cooking, and baking. He and his wife, Lisa, have two daughters.

More Posts