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Table of Contents > Conditions > Anaphylaxis
Also Listed As:  Allergic Reaction, Anaphylaxis
Signs and Symptoms
What Causes It?
Who's Most At Risk?
What to Expect at Your Provider's Office
Treatment Options
Treatment Plan
Drug Therapies
Surgical and Other Procedures
Complementary and Alternative Therapies
Prognosis/Possible Complications
Following Up
Supporting Research

Anaphylaxis is a sudden, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction. The symptoms may begin mildly but quickly become severe, often in a matter of seconds to minutes; occasionally, though, the symptoms develop gradually over a 24-hour period. The more rapidly the symptoms begin, the more severe they generally are. Anaphylaxis may occur again the next time a person is exposed to an allergen (allergy trigger). The first exposure to a trigger generally lays the groundwork for anaphylaxis by creating hypersensitivity. Anaphylaxis should always be considered a medical emergency, and you should seek help right away. It is estimated to be responsible for 500 deaths each year.

Signs and Symptoms
  • Itching (often the first symptom), redness, hives, swelling, sweating
  • Swelling in the nose or throat, hoarseness, wheezing, difficulty speaking, trouble breathing, chest tightness
  • Abnormal heart rate or rhythm, shock, heart attack
  • Stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control, an urgent feeling of needing to go to the bathroom
  • Tingling, headache, light-headedness, feeling disoriented or feeling a sense of doom, fainting, seizures

What Causes It?

Anaphylaxis occurs when the immune system overreacts to an allergen that you have encountered at least once before. Occasionally, through a different mechanism, an anaphylactic-like reaction (called anaphylactoid reaction) occurs with the very first exposure to the allergen. Symptoms are the same for both anaphylaxis and anaphylactoid reactions. Symptoms develop when cells release substances that are meant to protect you against the allergen.

Examples of anaphylaxis triggers include:

  • Antibiotics
  • Aspirin, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen), and prescription opiate pain medications (such as codeine); people with asthma and nasal polyps tend to be at greater risk for an anaphylactoid reaction to these drugs
  • Foods, such as nuts, shellfish, egg whites, and berries; those who react to ragweed may also react to chamomile tea
  • Insect bites or stings
  • Egg-based vaccines
  • Ingredients in some allergy skin tests, allergy shots, and vaccines
  • Blood transfusions
  • Latex (as in condoms, rubber gloves)
  • Food coloring and preservatives (such as tartrazine, also known as FDC yellow dye No. 5)
  • Although rare, athletes may have an anaphylactoid reaction to exercise after eating certain foods, such as celery, shrimp, apples, squid, wheat, hazelnut, or chicken; this reaction is thought to be related to endorphins

Who's Most At Risk?

The following factors may increase your risk for anaphylaxis:

  • Known allergies
  • Asthma
  • Initial exposure to the allergen by injection (intravenous medication)
  • Frequent exposure to the allergen, particularly if frequent exposure is followed by a long delay and then a reexposure
  • Taking beta-blockers, angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, or angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs)—medications used to treat heart disease or high blood pressure

What to Expect at Your Provider's Office

Your healthcare provider will perform an exam, ask about any contact you may have had with possible allergens, and conduct blood or urine tests, a chest X ray, allergy tests, or other tests.

Treatment Options
  • To help prevent anaphylaxis: Avoid anything known or suspected to have triggered a previous allergic response.
  • See an allergist for testing and treatment if any allergies are known or suspected.
  • Take medicines by mouth instead of by injection whenever possible.
  • If you have a history of anaphylaxis, carry a syringe loaded with epinephrine to inject immediately after exposure to a known allergen or at the first sign of a reaction. Healthcare providers can suggest a kit and provide instruction. Close family, friends, and caregivers should be taught to use the kit, too. Also, wear a Medic Alert bracelet to alert others that you have a history of this condition.

Treatment Plan

Get emergency medical care right away to maintain breathing, blood pressure, and heart function and to reverse the reaction.

Drug Therapies

Epinephrine is the drug of choice and should be given right away. Once at the hospital, additional drugs, including antihistamines and corticosteroids, may be used to control symptoms and prevent delayed relapse.

Surgical and Other Procedures

For breathing trouble, healthcare providers may need to open the airway with an endotracheal tube and possibly connect a ventilator. Other procedures may be necessary as well to stabilize blood pressure.

Complementary and Alternative Therapies

Anaphylaxis always requires standard emergency medical care. For the most part CAM therapies are inappropriate for treating an anaphylactic reaction. That said, they may help prevent allergic responses, including anaphylaxis. Some CAM approaches may also lessen the severity of any allergic reaction and may improve non-life-threatening symptoms of anaphylaxis. Specific nutrients, herbs, and acupuncture show promise. Be aware, however, that like prescription drugs, some nutraceuticals and botanicals can cause allergic reactions, including anaphylaxis.


Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids

Omega-3 essential fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties that may help protect against the extreme reaction of anaphylaxis. There was a lower death rate from anaphylactic shock in animals on a high omega-3 fatty acid diet compared to those on a high omega-6 diet. How this translates to humans is not known at this time.

Quercetin & Other Flavonoids

Naturopathic doctors have recommended that people with known allergies take quercetin (a naturally occurring flavonoid) before being exposed to allergens. This should lessen the severity of the allergic response. If you are susceptible to allergies you might want to consider taking quercetin supplements or eating foods high in flavonoids (such as fruits and vegetables) on a regular basis. Animal studies appear to support this traditional use of quercetin.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is thought to enhance the activity of quercetin.


Animal studies suggest that zinc may help protect against gastrointestinal symptoms (stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea) that sometimes accompany anaphylaxis.


Several studies have investigated the effects of medicinal plants traditionally used in Asia to prevent or treat allergic reactions. Results from animal studies on the effects of medicinal plants traditionally used in South Korea suggest that the plants may help prevent anaphylaxis and other allergic responses in susceptible individuals. These herbal remedies include:

  • Sweet chestnut tree (Castanea crenata)—used in Asian countries to treat whooping cough and lacquer poisoning; inhibited skin and blood vessels reactions related to anaphylaxis in animal studies. Quercetin is the active component.
  • Spreading sneezeweed(Centipeda minima)—used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for anti-inflammatory and anti-allergy purposes; appears to inhibit the release of histamine, a substance that causes many common allergy symptoms. Contains flavonoids as one of the active components.
  • Danshen root (Salviae miltiorrhiza)—used traditionally for treatment of allergies; inhibited skin related allergic reactions in rats.
  • Asian rose spp. (Rosa davurica)—traditionally used to regulate immune response; inhibited anaphylaxis in an animal study.
  • Hardy orange (Poncirus trifoliata)—used traditionally for treatment of allergies; animal studies have shown inhibition of anaphylaxis.
  • Skullcap root (Scutellaria baicalensis)—thought to have anti-allergy activity.
  • Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra or G. uralensis)—thought to have anti-allergy activity.
  • Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum)—thought to have anti-allergy activity.

Combination herbal remedies have also been tested in animals with varying degrees of success in preventing anaphylaxis or other allergic reactions. Use of herbal medicines for prevention of such responses is best directed by a licensed, certified specialist.

Consumer Alert: Although this happens much less frequently with plant-based substances than with pharmaceutical preparations, there are certain herbs for which there have been rare reports of allergic reactions, including:

  • Arnica flower (Arnica montana)
  • Artichoke leaf (Cynara scolymus)—in those with an allergy to artichokes
  • Blessed thistle herb(Cnicus benedictus)
  • Cayenne pepper (Capsicum spp.)
  • Cinnamon bark (Cinnamomum verum)
  • Dandelion root or herb (Taraxacum officinale)—may trigger a reaction in those with latex allergy
  • Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea)
  • Fennel oil and fennel seed (Foeniculum vulgare)
  • Ginkgo biloba leaf extract
  • Poplar bud (Populus spp.)—may trigger a reaction in those with salicylate sensitivity
  • Psyllium seed (Plantago spp.)—allergic response more common with powder or liquid form
  • Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)


Anaphylaxis requires immediate emergency medical attention. While the following homeopathic remedies have been used for allergic reactions including symptoms of anaphylaxis, they should be administered only under the guidance of a certified, trained homeopath in the appropriate circumstances. Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into account a person's constitutional type. A constitutional type is defined as a person's physical, emotional, and psychological makeup. An experienced homeopath assesses all of these factors when determining the most appropriate treatment for each individual.

  • Aconitum -- helps alleviate the tremendous anxiety and fear of dying that may occur during or immediately following an anaphylactic reaction
  • Arnica Montana -- may be used in the case of shock or following a traumatic experience
  • Apis Mellifica -- for puffy, rapidly swelling skin following an insect bite or sting.


An animal study comparing electroacupuncture (applying an electrical charge to acupuncture needles) to no treatment in cases of allergic shock demonstrated promising results. Sixty percent of the untreated animals died from their allergic reaction, compared to only 20% of the animals treated with electroacupuncture. While conventional treatment of anaphylaxis should never be delayed, this study suggests acupuncture may prove to be a useful adjunct. More research is needed before conclusions can be drawn.

Prognosis/Possible Complications

Without proper treatment, anaphylaxis can be deadly. Most people who receive proper treatment do well, however. Once you have anaphylaxis, you will not necessarily have it again even with exposure to the same allergen. But the risk is high, so do your best to avoid the inciting substance. Drugs classified as beta-blockers, monoamine oxidase inhibitors, ACE inhibitors, and ARBs may worsen anaphylaxis or interfere with treatment; if you have a history of anaphylaxis, you may want to check with your physician or pharmacist to find out if you are on one of these medications.

Following Up

Symptoms that started early may continue or new symptoms may set in later. Therefore, hospitalization may be needed for at least 24 hours. For a severe reaction, providers may monitor heart function or admit patients to the intensive care unit.

Supporting Research

Atkinson TP, Kaliner MA. Anaphylaxis. Med Clin North Am. 1992;76(4):841-855.

Blumenthal M, Goldberg A, Brinckmann J, eds. Herbal Medicine: Expanded Commission E Monographs. Newton, Mass: Integrative Medicine Communications; 2000:7-9, 10-12, 27-29, 52-55, 65-71, 78-83, 88-102, 124-129, 160-169, 314-321, 419-423.

Bochner BS, Lichtenstein LM. Anaphylaxis. N Engl J Med. 1991;324(25):1785-1790.

Briner WW Jr, Sheffer AL. Exercise-induced anaphylaxis. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1992;24(8):849-850.

Brown AF. Anaphylactic shock: mechanisms and treatment. J Accid Emerg Med. 1995;12(2):89-100.

Burks AW, Sampson HA. Anaphylaxis and food allergy. Clin Rev Allergy Immunol. 1999;17(3):339-360.

Darmon N, Pelissier MA, Candalh C, et al. Zinc and intestinal anaphylaxis to cow's milk proteins in malnourished guinea pigs. Pediatr Res. 1997;42(2):208-213.

Dykewicz MS. Anaphylaxis and stinging insect reactions. Compr Ther. 1996;22(9):579-585.

Ewan PW. ABC of allergies: anaphylaxis. BMJ. 1998;316(7142):1442-1445.

Friday GA Jr, Fireman P. Anaphylaxis. Ear Nose Throat J. 1996;75(1):21-24.

Goldman L, Bennett JC. Cecil Textbook of Medicine. Vol. 2. 21st ed. Philadelphia, Pa: W.B. Saunders Company; 2000:1450-1452.

James JM. Anaphylaxis: multiple etiologies-focused therapy. J Ark Med Soc. 1996;93(6):281-287.

Jian M. Influence of adrenergic antagonist and naloxone on the anti-allergic shock effect of electro-acupuncture in mice. Acupunct Electrother Res. 1985;10(3):163-167.

Kagy L, Blaiss MS. Anaphylaxis in children. Pediatr Ann. 1998;27(11):727-734.

Kim HM, Kim HJ, Park ST. Inhibition of immunoglobulin E production by Poncirus trifoliata fruit extract. J Ethnopharmacol. 1999;66(3):283-288.

Kim HM, Kim YY, Jang HY, Moon SJ, An NH. Action of Sosiho-Tang on systemic and local anaphylaxis by anal administration. Immunopharmacol Immunotoxicol. 1999;21(3):635-643.

Kim HM, Lee EH, Lee JH, Jung JA, Kim JJ. Salviae radix root extract inhibits immunoglobulin E-mediated allergic reaction. Gen Pharmacol. 1999;32(5):603-608.

Kim HM, Park YA, Lee EJ, Shin TY. Inhibition of immediate-type allergic reaction by Rosa davurica Pall. in a murine model. J Ethnopharmacol. 1999;67(1):53-60.

Kim HM, Yang DJ. Effect of Kumhwang-San on anaphylactic reaction in a murine model. Immunopharmacol Immunotoxicol. 1999;21(1):163-174.

Lee E, Choi EJ, Cheong H, Kim YR, Ryu SY, Kim KM. Anti-allergic actions of the leaves of Castanea crenata and isolation of an active component responsible for the inhibition of mast cell degranulation. Arch Pharm Res. 1999;22(3):320-323.

Middleton E Jr, et al. Allergy: Principles and Practice. Vol. 2. 5th ed. St. Louis, Mo: Mosby; 1998:1079-1089.

Morrison R. Desktop Guide to Keynotes and Confirmatory Symptoms. Albany, Calif: Hahnemann Clinic Publishing; 1993:3-7, 27-30, 58-62, 104.

Mullins RJ. Echinacea-associated anaphylaxis. Med J Aust. 1998;168(4):170-171.

Nemoto K, Okamura T. Intracellular signals in IgG-mediated anaphylactic contraction of single smooth muscle cells. Jpn J Allergol. 1992;41(2):125-134.

Oh-hashi K, Watanabe S, Kobayashi T, Okuyama H. Reevaluation of the effect of a high alpha-linolenate and a high linoleate diet on antigen-induced antibody and anaphylactic responses in mice. Biol Pharm Bull. 1997;20(3):217-223.

Okazaki M, Kitani H, Mifune T, et al. Food-dependent exercise-induced anaphylaxis. Intern Med. 1992;31(8):1052-1055.

Patterson R, et al. Allergic Diseases: Diagnosis and Management. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott-Raven Publishers; 1997:439-454.

Patterson R, Harris KE. Idiopathic anaphylaxis. Allergy Asthma Proc. 1999;20(5):311-315.

Pizzorno JE Jr, Murray MT. Textbook of Natural Medicine. Vol. 1. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Churchill Livingstone; 1999:456-459, 746-749, 751-759.

Rosen P, et al. Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. Vol. 3. 4th ed. St. Louis, Mo: Mosby; 1998:2759-2774.

Stephen JM, Grant R, Yeh CS. Anaphylaxis from administration of intravenous thiamine. Am J Emerg Med. 1992;10(1):61-63.

Tsumura A, Kampo A. How the Japanese Updated Traditional Herbal Medicine. Tokyo: Japan Publications; 1991:191-192.

Wang YZ, Palmer JM, Cooke HJ. Neuroimmune regulation of colonic secretion in guinea pigs. Am J Physiol. 1991;260:(2 pt 1):G307-G314.

Wu JB, Chun YT, Ebizuka Y, Sankawa U. Biologically active constituents of Centipeda minima: sesquiterpenes of potential anti-allergy activity. Chem Pharm Bull (Tokyo). 1991;39(12):3272-3275.

Wyatt R. Anaphylaxis. How to recognize, treat, and prevent potentially fatal attacks. Postgrad Med. 1996;100(2):87-90, 96-99.

Review Date: December 2000
Reviewed By: Participants in the review process include: Jacqueline A. Hart, MD, Department of Internal Medicine, Newton-Wellesley Hospital, Harvard University and Senior Medical Editor Integrative Medicine, Boston, MA; Scott Shannon, MD, Integrative Psychiatry, Medical Director, McKee Hospital Center for Holistic Medicine, Fort Collins, CO; David Winston, Herbalist, Herbalist and Alchemist, Inc., Washington, NJ.

Copyright © 2004 A.D.A.M., Inc

The publisher does not accept any responsibility for the accuracy of the information or the consequences arising from the application, use, or misuse of any of the information contained herein, including any injury and/or damage to any person or property as a matter of product liability, negligence, or otherwise. No warranty, expressed or implied, is made in regard to the contents of this material. No claims or endorsements are made for any drugs or compounds currently marketed or in investigative use. This material is not intended as a guide to self-medication. The reader is advised to discuss the information provided here with a doctor, pharmacist, nurse, or other authorized healthcare practitioner and to check product information (including package inserts) regarding dosage, precautions, warnings, interactions, and contraindications before administering any drug, herb, or supplement discussed herein.

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