The prevalence of allergies with the potential risk of anaphylaxis is a global issue and is currently on the rise in Australia affecting the quality of life of millions of individuals, adults and children alike.
According to the Australian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA), one in every five (20%) Australians suffers from allergies and anaphylaxis. Since there is no known cure for allergic diseases, it is important to be aware of the possible harm that can happen in severe cases and what to do about it.
What is Allergy
An allergy is a hypersensitivity reaction of the immune system to typically harmless substances in the environment known as an allergen. When an individual comes into contact with an allergen, the immune system produces antibodies, IgE for example, to fight the “invaders”. These antibodies then attach themselves to mast cells, which are found in various tissues throughout the body. The mast cells release chemicals, such as histamine, setting off an allergic reaction.
Allergic Reactions Can Occur in Several Ways
There are different routes allergens reach the body which in turn trigger a chain of events resulting in mild to severe allergic reactions. The response may be immediate, taking only a few minutes or delayed i.e. after 12-24 hours minimum.
- Contact reactions happen when an allergen comes into contact with the skin or mucous membranes.
- Ingested reactions occur when a person eats an allergen.
- Respiratory reactions happen when an allergen is inhaled, such as pollen or animal dander.
- Anaphylactic reactions are the most severe and can be life-threatening. They occur when the body reacts to an allergen by releasing chemicals that cause the airways to swell and the blood pressure to drop. This can make it difficult to breathe and can cause shock.
Main Symptoms of Allergy
At any age, the common symptoms of an allergic reaction include:
- Hives – a raised and itchy red rash
- Swelling of the lips, face, tongue, or eyes
- Conjunctivitis – itchy red, watery eyes
- Allergic Rhinitis – itchy, runny or clogged nose, sneezing
- Shortness of breath, wheezing, chest tightness, or cough
- Digestive problems – tummy pain, vomiting or diarrhoea
- Patches of dry red and cracked skin
Common Types of Allergies
People suffer from a wide range of allergies. Some outgrow these over time while the opposite can occur for those who did not have allergies originally at a young age. There are four commonly reported allergies capable of bringing about adverse reactions.
The immune system reacts to certain food or ingredients. Even the tiniest amount can trigger symptoms. Food allergies are much more common in children than in adults where family history can be a risk factor in some cases. Symptoms start to show as early as infancy or childhood. A lot of times food allergies fade away but allergies to nuts or crustaceans are typically lifelong.
Food allergens: cow’s milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat.
Symptoms: hives, itching, skin rash, swollen lips, swollen airways, digestive problems
A drug allergy is the abnormal response of the immune system to a medication that can cause treatment complications. Serious drug allergy often manifests within an hour after taking the drug. As a common practice, doctors and hospitals ask their patients about drug allergies, especially antibiotics, before prescribing or administering treatment.
Drug allergens: penicillin and other antibiotics, sulfa drugs, insulin and local anesthetics
Symptoms: skin rash, itching, hives, swelling, fever, shortness of breath, wheezing, itchy or watery eyes, runny nose
Also known as hay fever or allergic rhinitis. Hay fever is a condition that instantly affects the nose and airways when an allergen is inhaled. It can be a nuisance, but it is not life-threatening.
Inhalant allergens: penicillin and other antibiotics, sulfa drugs, insulin and local anesthetics
Symptoms: sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes, and congestion
Hay Fever in Australia
More common in Australia than in other parts of the world due to climate and high levels of pollen and other allergens in the air. It is estimated that up to one in five Australians suffer from hay fever. There is no cure for hay fever, but there are treatments that can help to reduce the symptoms along with these preventive measures.
- Avoid triggers.
- Staying indoors when pollen levels are high.
- using medication such as antihistamines and nasal sprays
Also known as contact dermatitis, a skin condition that occurs when the skin comes into contact with an irritant or allergen. Contact with jewellery or reactions to fragrances in perfumes and household chemicals are common scenarios that can precipitate contact allergies.
Contact allergens: latex, nickel, cobalt, chromium, cleaning solutions
Symptoms: itching, redness, swelling and blistering
Who are at Risk of Having an Allergy
There are many factors that can contribute to someone developing allergies. Age, family history, and exposure to certain substances or environments are all thought to play a role. In developed countries like Australia, it’s estimated that up to 30% of the population suffers from some form of allergy. That means that nearly one in every three people you meet could be at risk of having an allergy.
What is the Difference Between Allergy and Anaphylaxis
What is anaphylaxis? It is a generalized or systemic rapid onset hypersensitivity reaction that is severe and life-threatening. In severe cases, anaphylaxis that is left untreated can lead to death within thirty minutes.
Symptoms of Anaphylaxis
- Severe and serious reactions have the following symptoms:
- Swelling of the throat or tongue
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest pain – heartbeat that is fast and irregular
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Loss of consciousness
Have You Experienced an Anaphylactic Shock
An anaphylactic shock is a sudden and severe allergic reaction that occurs when your body overreacts to a substance such as an insect sting or certain medication. Symptoms include swelling of the throat and tongue, difficulty breathing, and a drop in blood pressure to the point where cells and organs are deprived of oxygen. Failure to recognize the situation and not give proper intervention may lead to a more serious anaphylactic reaction.
Emergency First Aid for Severe Allergic Reactions
Anaphylaxis as well as asthma attacks require immediate medical attention and can be fatal if not treated. In the event a person has difficulty breathing due to these conditions, do the following right away until medical assistance arrives:
- Make the person lie flat with their legs elevated. Do not allow them to stand or walk. If the patient complains of the difficulty of breathing, assist them in sitting up.
- Administer an adrenaline injector (such as EpiPen® or Anapen®) into the outer mid-thigh.
- Unconscious patients should be placed on their sides and lift their chins to open up the airway.
- Call for an ambulance or call triple zero (000). There might be a need to do CPR right away.
- Phone the person’s emergency contact or family member.
- If there is no response after 5 minutes, you may need to give another dose of adrenaline.
What is Medication-Induced Anaphylaxis
Medications are a significant cause of anaphylaxis hospitalization in older people and they contribute significantly to anaphylaxis mortality in Australia. When giving medications to elderly patients, request someone who can give a correct medical history and history of allergic reactions to any taken drug must be carefully elicited.
How to Prepare and Prevent Allergies
The key to prevention is avoidance of the triggering factors. Moreover, there are a few things that you can do to prepare for or avoid allergies in Australia.
- Know what your allergies are. If you are unsure, you can ask your doctor or an allergist. Once you know your allergies, take steps to avoid them.
- If you are allergic to pollen, you can try to stay indoors when the pollen count is high.
- You can also use an air purifier in your home and avoid going outside during peak pollen hours.
- If you are allergic to certain foods, you can make sure to avoid those foods or carry around an adrenaline injector in case of a severe reaction.
- It is important to keep your allergies under control by taking medication as prescribed and avoiding triggers.
- Bring your mobile phone with you at all times when outdoors
- Wear an identifier bracelet or jewellery saying you are prone to allergies
- Avoid medication such as beta-blockers that can aggravate an allergic reaction
- The Better Health Channel also recommends having a copy of the ASCIA Action Plan for Anaphylaxis
- Enrol in a first aid anaphylaxis course or get certified in Asthma and Anaphylaxis emergency care management
How to Learn Anaphylaxis First Aid
Enrolling in first aid training with an add-on combination of asthma and anaphylaxis course will not only be beneficial to yourself but also to family, friends, coworkers and people in your surroundings who are at risk or constantly suffering from allergic diseases.
CPR First Aid is a leading provider of compliant, accredited first aid courses and training all across Australia. Call us for more information.