Anaphylaxis – Causes, Symptoms & Treatment


Anaphylaxis is a suddenly occurring pathological, i.e. pathological, immediate reaction of the immune system to certain antigens that are normally not dangerous to the human body.

What is anaphylaxis?

Anaphylaxis is a type I (immediate type) allergic reaction. An allergy is hypersensitivity to normally completely harmless environmental substances (allergens).

The allergy is acquired through initial contact with the antigens, small molecules found on the surface of the allergen. Bacteria also carry antigens on their surface. To put it simply, these antigens trigger a defensive reaction in the immune system. In the case of bacteria, this is a perfectly physiological, i.e. healthy, reaction. In the case of an allergy, however, the immune system overreacts and forms antibodies against the actually harmless antigens of the allergy-causing substance.


When you first come into contact with the allergen , nothing happens apart from the formation of antibodies. If you then come into contact with the allergen again, an allergic reaction is triggered. It is not possible to predict when hypersensitivity will appear. It often only occurs years after the first contact with the allergen.

In principle, almost all environmental substances can become an allergen. Pollen, house dust, nuts and penicillin are particularly widespread allergens . A specific cause for allergies has not yet been identified. However, both genetic and environmental factors seem to play a role.

In the case of immediate-type allergic reactions, the organism reacts when it first comes into contact with the allergen with a very strong formation of antibodies, which settle on the surface of the so-called mast cells. If they come into contact again, these antibodies react with the allergen.

The mast cells, on which the antibodies are located, release their components, including histamine in particular, within a very short time. Histamine is a tissue hormone that causes inflammatory reactions in the body.

Symptoms, Ailments & Signs

Although the symptoms of anaphylaxis are very unpleasant and significantly reduce the patient’s quality of life, they do not have a direct negative effect on the patient’s health and are therefore usually harmless. The patients primarily suffer from severe itching and thus reddening of the skin. Scratching usually only makes the itching worse.

It can also lead to vomiting , diarrhea or severe nausea . Those affected also have hives and in some cases may also suffer from asthma . In severe cases, the breathing difficulties can lead to a loss of consciousness, which can injure the person concerned. There is also permanent tiredness and exhaustion due to breathing difficulties.

There is also swelling in various parts of the body and this can lead to restrictions in movement. In most cases, the person affected can no longer carry out their usual activities due to the anaphylaxis and is therefore significantly restricted in their everyday life. Anaphylaxis can also cause anxiety or dizziness. The symptoms are usually accompanied by severe headaches , and the affected person’s blood pressure also drops sharply.

Diagnosis & History

An anaphylactic reaction can be divided into five stages. The intensity of this reaction depends on the effect of the allergen on the organism. External contact, for example through the skin, tends to lead to localized reactions. When the allergen is absorbed through the bloodstream, the body reacts in a generalized manner.

In general, anaphylaxis can be divided into five stages. Each stage requires a specific action. Since anaphylaxis can be life-threatening, rapid action is essential.

In stage 0, local reactions occur at the site of allergy contact within seconds of contact with the allergen. Swelling , redness and itching can occur . At this stage, no treatment is usually necessary. However, renewed contact with the allergen should be avoided at all costs.

In the first stage, these local reactions spread. This means that, for example, the redness or rash no longer only occurs at the site of allergy contact, but also primarily on the face, hands and upper body. In addition, there are other general symptoms such as anxiety , dizziness and headaches . If the throat swells, the person concerned also complains of shortness of breath .

At this stage, the emergency doctor must be called as soon as possible . The victim should be calmed and their pulse and breathing checked. In stage II, the organs now also react to the allergen contact. It comes to asthmatic symptoms, abdominal or abdominal cramps, an increase in pulse and a drop in blood pressure. If the emergency doctor has not yet been called, urgent action is required. The victim’s legs should be elevated.

Stage III corresponds to anaphylactic shock. The pulse accelerates to more than 100 beats per minute and the blood pressure drops. The victim loses consciousness. Unconscious victims should be placed in the stable side position. If possible, the legs should be slightly elevated.

At the end of the anaphylaxis (stage IV) there is circulatory and respiratory arrest. If no resuscitation takes place or if this remains unsuccessful, the person concerned dies.


Anaphylaxis occurs as part of an allergic reaction and has various complications. An allergy in general severely restricts the quality of life, since the triggering substance has to be avoided in order to avoid a reaction. In the most harmless case, contact with the allergen can lead to severe reddening of the skin and itching, and it is not uncommon for hives to appear as well.

Swelling of the airways is also common and leads to massive breathing problems in those affected, so that they have to resort to an antiallergic as soon as possible. In addition to shortness of breath, there are also difficulties in swallowing. In the context of Quincke’s edema , the airways become more swollen, and the deeper layers of the skin also swell, making it more difficult to treat.

In the course of the allergy, so-called cross-allergies can also occur. The allergen has a molecular structure that can look similar to other substances. As a result, other substances can also trigger anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis can also end in anaphylactic shock, since the blood vessels are opened wide and important organs such as the kidneys and lungs are no longer properly supplied with blood.

This can result in kidney or lung failure. A heart attack is also a possible complication of anaphylactic shock . Anaphylaxis is fatal in one percent of cases.

When should you go to the doctor?

In the event of anaphylaxis, an ambulance must be called immediately. First aid measures must be taken at the first sign of an allergic shock reaction. Depending on the symptoms, it may be necessary, for example, to perform chest compressions (in the case of cardiac arrest) or mouth-to-mouth resuscitation (in the case of shortness of breath). In case of vomiting, the body must be placed in the stable side position. If a circulatory system collapses or a heart attack occurs in connection with an insect bite or the consumption of certain foods, anaphylaxis is probably present.

Beforehand, cramps, tachycardia or intense pain indicate an allergic reaction that must be treated immediately. In addition, it should be checked whether the person concerned has an anaphylaxis card with them. If this is not the case, the document should be requested at the next doctor’s visit. Medical treatment is always required in the event of anaphylaxis. After recovery, the person concerned should make use of further counseling appointments and find out about avoidance strategies and aids. Good preparation can significantly reduce the risks associated with anaphylactic shock.

Treatment & Therapy

A therapy of the allergy, and thus a safe prevention of an anaphylactic reaction is not possible. Only careful avoidance of the anaphylaxis trigger offers protection. If you have a known severe allergy to food or insect venom, your doctor may prescribe an emergency kit.

This contains medicines that can ensure quick help until the arrival of the emergency doctor. Those affected by a severe allergy should always carry an anaphylaxis pass with them. This can save lives in an emergency.

Outlook & Forecast

The extent and treatment of the anaphylactic reaction are critical to the prognosis. The quicker action is taken in the event of a stronger reaction, the more likely it is that the reaction will subside and that the condition of the person affected will improve. This applies to the point where the anaphylactic reaction affects the organism so severely that it is permanently damaged by anaphylactic shock.

Mild reactions caused by the initial phase of an anaphylactic reaction should be considered harmless if they resolve on their own within a few hours. Consequential damage is not to be expected. On the other hand, if the patient’s condition worsens, it is often no longer possible for the reaction to subside without the administration of medication. A promptly treated anaphylactic reaction is usually without sequelae.

Left untreated, an anaphylactic reaction that progresses beyond the stage of transient minimal symptoms often results in life-threatening shock which, if left untreated, will result in death.

For many sufferers, the allergic reaction will repeat itself whenever they are exposed to the allergen in question. After a quickly treated anaphylactic shock, the patient is monitored in the hospital to determine any damage to the organism. The fatality rate in the event of a severe shock is about one percent. In the case of mild anaphylactic reactions, it is significantly lower.


An important measure for allergy prevention is a low-allergen environment in childhood, which includes avoiding care products with many additives. An important goal should also be the development of an intact immune system.

The following applies here: Too much cleanliness does more harm than good. The path to an allergy can also be paved in the womb. Studies show that children whose mothers smoked during pregnancy are more likely to be exposed to allergies. If an allergy develops despite all preventive measures, anaphylaxis can be prevented almost exclusively by avoiding the allergen.


Once diagnosed with anaphylaxis, patients have a responsibility to avoid an allergic reaction. After the first illness, the doctor treating you provides information about dangerous materials and substances. Only in rare cases is a new diagnosis necessary. Doctors diagnose the disease with a blood and skin test. Anaphylaxis is lifelong.

Those affected do not acquire immunity to certain substances after a reaction. Unlike with other diseases, follow-up care cannot be aimed at ensuring early detection. In order to avoid life-threatening complications, those affected must avoid allergens in everyday life. These occur in different areas of life.

Food can cause a reaction just like clothing. Some patients also get sick from insect bites. It is advisable to take necessary medication with you, especially when travelling. This allows life-saving emergency measures to be initiated immediately. An allergy pass and special necklaces and bracelets inform first responders about the underlying disease.

They should always be carried in severe forms of anaphylaxis. Allergy sufferers should always inform those closest to them about the disease and have instructions ready for emergencies. If breathing is affected, the emergency doctor must be informed immediately. The actual follow-up care falls to the patient.

You can do that yourself

The best way to prevent anaphylactic shock or anaphylaxis is to avoid the allergen in question. The person concerned should always check the ingredients when buying food, especially processed food. In the case of strong reactions to specific insects, certain areas where these are numerous should be avoided if possible.

An important way to prevent allergies is a low-allergen environment in childhood. The use of care products with many additives should also be avoided. Building an intact immune system can also help prevent anaphylaxis from occurring. Too much cleanliness can even prove harmful.

Expectant mothers should absolutely refrain from smoking . Various studies have shown that the way for a later allergy can already be paved in the womb. Once an allergy develops, the only effective prevention is consistent avoidance of the specific allergen.

However, severe allergy sufferers can wear special wristbands or collars in order to provide other people with the right information in an extreme emergency and thus receive help more quickly. It is also advisable for those affected to carry an emergency kit with them at all times, with the appropriate medication, so that they are prepared in the event of an emergency.

Lisa Newlon
 | Website

Hello! I am Lisa Newlon, and I am a medical writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience in the healthcare industry. I have a Master’s degree in Medicine, and my deep understanding of medical terminology, practices, and procedures has made me a trusted source of information in the medical world.