Severe, possible life-threatening allergic reactions are increasing. Peanut allergy affects at least 1:200 children. Some children are so allergic to peanuts that the mere inhalation of peanut fumes can be enough to trigger a reaction. Fortunately, this level of allergic response is rare.

Foods and other substances commonly implicated in acute allergic reactions are

  • other tree nuts such as almonds, brazils, walnuts
  • sesame seeds
  • shellfish
  • egg
  • milk
  • some fruits
  • latex
  • insect stings
What happens during an acute allergic reaction
The body responds to the allergen by releasing certain compounds from the cells into the bloodstream. These substances cause

  • itching
  • swelling of the face, tongue and larynx - otherwise known as angioneurotic oedema
  • tightening of the small airways in the lungs (bronchospasm) which produces an asthmatic type response
  • urticaria (hives)
  • abdominal cramps, nausea and vomiting
  • collapse and unconsciousness due to a fall in blood pressure
Epinephrine (adrenaline) is the most effective treatment for a severe allergic reaction. Anyone who is known to have developed a food allergy or has reacted severely to insect bites in the past should consider carrying an injection kit which means that they can inject themselves. There are easy to use autoinjectors which can be prescribed by your doctor.

Repeated exposure to an allergen can make for increasingly severe reactions, but the severity of the reaction can be unpredictable. The reaction can progress rapidly and life-threatening symptoms can develop within 10-15 minutes. If you know that you have developed a food allergy, it would be wise to inform all your friends, carry some adrenaline with you at all times and use it if you have CLEAR evidence you are developing a reaction ie difficulty in breathing or swelling of your tongue. Less severe reactions can be treated by other drugs such as antihistamines. Whilst the use of adrenaline carries some risks (very few in young, healthy adults) it is better to use it earlier rather than later but only in the presence of severe symptoms.

Remember to have studied the instructions beforehand and ask your practice nurse for advice on how to use it, when it is first prescribed. It is very important that you inject into the muscle of the thigh and NOT your finger as it could stop the circulation in the finger and cause gangrene.

It is helpful to carry with you some information about your allergy. You might want to consider using the Medic Alert Foundation which will keep details of your condition on a central database and produce bracelets for you to wear. You can contact them on 020 7833 3034 or email:

Address: MedicAlert , 1 Bridge Wharf, 156 Caledonian Road, London N1 9UU

It might be advisable for you to be referred to a specialist allergy centre for further investigation and advice. Speak to your doctor about this.

Further information

The Allergy Foundation

The Anaphylaxis Organisation

This article published on
01 May 2005

Next review date 10/1/2013


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