Make sure you’re prepared for allergy emergencies
What is an allergy?
An allergy is a reaction the body has to a particular food or other substance. Allergies are very common and symptoms are usually quite mild.
Common symptoms of an allergic reaction include:
• A raised, itchy, red rash (hives)
• Swollen lips, tongue, eyes or face
• Tummy pain, feeling sick, vomiting or diarrhoea
• Dry, red and cracked skin
How can I treat an allergic reaction?
Allergic reactions usually happen quickly, within a few minutes of exposure to an allergen.
Depending on what you're allergic to, your GP or pharmacist will be able to offer advice and recommend appropriate treatment to control your symptoms.
Avoiding exposure to allergens
The best way to keep your symptoms under control is often to avoid the things you're allergic to, although this isn’t always practical.
You may be able to help manage:
• Food allergies – by being careful about what you eat
• Animal allergies – by keeping any pet you have outside as much as possible
• Mould allergies – by keeping your home dry and well-ventilated, and dealing with any damp and condensation
• Hay fever – by staying indoors and avoiding grassy areas when the pollen count is high
• Dust mite allergies – by using allergy-proof duvets and pillows, and fitting wooden floors rather than carpets
Medicines for relief of mild allergy symptoms are available from pharmacies without a prescription. Speak to your pharmacist or GP and read the information leaflet inside the pack before starting any new medicine, as they’re not suitable for everyone.
Allergy medicines include:
• Antihistamines – often used to relieve symptoms of allergies (such as hay fever, hives, conjunctivitis and reactions to insect bites or stings), they can be taken when you notice the symptoms of an allergic reaction or before being exposed to an allergen, to prevent an allergic reaction occurring
• Decongestants – they can be used as a short-term treatment for a blocked nose caused by an allergic reaction. Don’t use them for more than a week at a time as it could make your symptoms worse
• Soothing lotions and creams – they can be used to treat red and itchy skin caused by an allergic reaction
• Steroid medicines – they can help reduce inflammation caused by an allergic reaction. Nasal sprays and mild steroid creams are available without a prescription
Immunotherapy may be an option for a small number of people with certain severe and persistent allergies who are unable to control their symptoms using the measures above.
It involves being given occasional small doses of the allergen (either as an injection performed in a specialist allergy clinic, or as drops or tablets provided by the clinic that can usually be taken at home) over the course of several years.
The aim of the treatment is to help your body get used to the allergen so it doesn’t react to it so severely.
What is anaphylactic shock?
Some people with a severe allergy may experience a life-threatening reaction when they come into contact with the substance they are allergic to (allergen), known as anaphylaxis or anaphylactic shock.
It’s a medical emergency that comes on quickly and requires immediate treatment.
How can I treat anaphylactic shock?
If someone has symptoms of anaphylaxis, you should:
1. Use an adrenaline auto-injector if the person has one – but make sure you know how to use it correctly first
2. Call 999 for an ambulance immediately (even if they start to feel better) – mention that you think the person is experiencing anaphylaxis
3. Remove any triggers if possible – for example, carefully remove any stinger stuck in the skin
4. Lie the person down and raise their legs – unless they're having breathing difficulties and need to sit up to help them breathe. If they're pregnant, lie them down on their left side
5. Give another injection after five minutes if the symptoms don’t improve and a second auto-injector is available
If you're having an anaphylactic reaction, you can follow these steps yourself if you feel able to.
People with potentially serious allergies are often prescribed adrenaline auto-injectors to carry at all times. These can help stop anaphylactic shock becoming life threatening.
They should be used as soon as a serious reaction is suspected, either by the person experiencing anaphylaxis or administered by someone helping them.
If you’re at risk, you should carry two of them with you and make sure you’re aware how to use your type of auto-injector correctly. Instructions are included on the side of each injector if you forget how to use it or someone else needs to give you the injection. Check the expiry date of your auto-injectors and replace any that are due to expire before this date is reached.
Positioning & resuscitation
Someone experiencing anaphylaxis needs to be placed in the correct position:
• Most people should lie flat with their legs raised
• If they're pregnant, they should lie on their left side
• People having trouble breathing should sit up for a short time to help make breathing easier, and then lie down again when possible
• Avoid a sudden change to an upright posture, such as standing or sitting up – this can cause a dangerous fall in blood pressure
If the person's breathing or heart stops, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) should be performed immediately.
If you've experienced anaphylactic shock, you should go to hospital for observation (even if your symptoms have subsided and appear to have resolved). They may want to keep you in for six to 12 hours, as sometimes symptoms can return.
While in hospital:
• An oxygen mask may be used to help with breathing
• Fluids may be given directly into a vein to help increase blood pressure
• Additional medicines, such as antihistamines and steroids, may be used to help relieve symptoms
• Blood tests may be carried out to confirm anaphylaxis
You should be able to go home when the symptoms are under control and it's thought they won’t return quickly.
You may be advised to take antihistamines and steroid tablets for a few days after leaving hospital to help stop your symptoms returning.
You’ll also probably be asked to attend a follow-up appointment with an allergy specialist so you can be given advice about how you can avoid further episodes of anaphylaxis.
If you’ve not had an adrenaline auto-injector before, these may be provided for emergency use between leaving hospital and attending the follow-up appointment.
If suitable for you and you’ve previously been prescribed an adrenaline auto-injector and know how to use it, you can access anaphylaxis treatment via the Boots Online Doctor – Anaphylaxis Treatment service.*
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