How Allergies Work

Extreme allergic reactions may include difficulty breathing and anaphylactic shock.

Anaphylactic Shock

The exposure-reaction time can vary depending on your body (how well you handle the exposure) and the allergen you were exposed to. In a mild case, you may only have mild itching or swelling. In a severe reaction, after exposure to the triggering antigen, you may suddenly develop hives over large areas of your body and begin having breathing difficulties (this is accompanied by a rapid and severe drop in blood pressure). Also, in a severe reaction, thinking becomes muddled as the brain and other vital organs become oxygen-starved. The brain and kidneys are especially vulnerable in this type of reaction and may be permanently damaged even if the victim survives.

To make matters worse, cell fluids dumped into the tissues of the throat can cause the throat to swell shut, leading to anaphylactic shock and death in as little as three or four minutes after exposure to the antigen or the onset of symptoms. Hundreds of people die annually from anaphylactic shock in the United States alone.

Currently, the only effective treatment for anaphylaxis is an intramuscular injection of epinephrine, a hormone the body produces naturally in the adrenal glands. Epinephrine counteracts the symptoms of anaphylaxis by constricting the blood vessels and opening the airways. The down side is that its effects last only 10 to 20 minutes per injection, it has some potentially serious side effects, and it must be administered correctly at or before the onset of symptoms to be effective.