Family health

Ask Dr. Dina: What is anaphylaxis?

Dr. Dina Kulik breaks down the different causes, symptoms and treatment of your child's anaphylaxis.

By Dr. Dina Kulik

Ask Dr. Dina: What is anaphylaxis?

Photo: iStockphoto

My son was just told he has a peanut allergy. What is anaphylaxis exactly?

Anaphylaxis, or an allergic reaction, is a multi-system response to an allergen. In your son’s case, that’s peanuts, but other common allergens include medicine, latex and insect stings. Generally, you’ll see an allergic reaction within minutes of exposure, though it can be delayed by a few hours. A reaction may involve any of the symptoms below, and true anaphylaxis involves two or more of the following categories.

  • Skin: hives, swelling, warmth, redness, itchiness
  • Respiratory system: wheezing, coughing, difficulty breathing, throat tightness, runny nose, trouble swallowing
  • Gastrointestinal: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain
  • Cardiovascular: pallor (pale skin tone), cyanosis (bluish cast to the skin), dizziness, fainting, weak pulse, low blood pressure
  • Other: headache, anxiety, feeling of impending doom

If you see any symptoms of anaphylaxis, call 911 immediately. Parents often ask me if they should give diphenhydramine, such as Benadryl, and wait to see what happens. Absolutely not. An allergic reaction can quickly kill a child. If your child has no other symptoms than hives and is otherwise well, make an appointment with your physician to have him checked out. But if more than one body system is involved, call 911. Your child may need a life-saving dose of epinephrine with an EpiPen. Every kid who has an allergy should carry an EpiPen at all times, and parents should have their allergist train them in how to use it.

Alert your child’s school and the parents’ of your child’s friends. If you are leaving your child for playdates, make sure they know how EpiPen works and to call 911 right away.

If you suspect your child might have an allergy, see your physician for a referral to an allergist, who can determine the full scope of the allergy. Sometimes there are more allergies than you’re aware of. For example, many children who have a peanut allergy may also have allergies to tree nuts. It’s good to get tested to know for sure.