How Fast Can You Have an Allergic Reaction to Food or Another Allergen?
A potentially deadly allergic reaction is called anaphylaxis. It can occur within minutes of exposure to an allergen. If not treated appropriately, anaphylaxis can turn deadly very quickly.
An allergen may be inhaled, swallowed, touched, or injected. Once an allergen is in your body, an allergic reaction may begin within seconds or minutes. Milder allergies may not cause noticeable symptoms for several hours. The most common allergens include foods, medications, insect stings, and insect bites. An allergist/immunologist can best diagnose allergies and help determine your specific allergy issues.
An anaphylactic response begins quickly after you come into contact with the allergen. Your body releases a lot of chemicals that are intended to combat the allergen. These chemicals set off a chain reaction of symptoms. These initial symptoms can include:
- chest tightness or discomfort
- difficulty breathing
- nausea or vomiting
- abdominal pain
- difficulty swallowing
- skin redness
- slurred speech
- mental confusion
Initial symptoms may quickly turn to more severe problems. If these symptoms go untreated, you may develop one or more of the following symptoms or conditions:
- low blood pressure
- abnormal heart rhythm
- rapid pulse
- loss of oxygen
- blocked airway
- severe swelling of the eyes, face, or affected body part
- airway blockage
- cardiac arrest
- respiratory arrest
If you are experiencing an allergic reaction, it’s important to focus and remain calm. Fully explain to a responsible person what just happened, what you think the allergen is, and identify your symptoms. Anaphylaxis will quickly leave you disoriented and possibly struggling to breathe, so it’s important you communicate the difficulties you’re having as quickly as possible to someone who can help. If you are alone when the reaction occurs, call 911 immediately.
If you are helping someone having an allergic reaction, it’s important to encourage them to stay calm. Anxiety can make symptoms worse. This can escalate the reaction and make it worse.
Identify what caused the reaction if you can and remove it. Make sure the person has no further contact with the trigger.
Have the individual lie down and monitor them for signs of a reaction. If they show signs of difficulty breathing or loss of circulation, seek immediate emergency help. If you know that the person is severely allergic to the allergen, call 911.
Many people with diagnosed severe allergies will receive a prescription for an epinephrine auto-injector from their doctor. If you have your auto-injector when you have the reaction, give yourself an injection right away. If you’re too weak to give the injection, ask someone who is trained to administer it.
It’s important to keep in mind that this medicine is a timesaver, not a lifesaver. Even after one injection, you must seek emergency treatment. Call 911 as soon as you inject the epinephrine, or have someone drive you to a hospital immediately.
Anaphylaxis always requires a trip to the emergency room. If you do not receive the proper treatment, anaphylaxis can turn deadly in as little as 15 minutes. The hospital staff will want to monitor you closely. They may give you another injection. In the case of severe reactions, one injection is sometimes not enough. In addition, healthcare professionals can provide other medications, such as antihistamines or corticosteroids. These medicines can help treat any additional symptoms, including itchiness or hives.
The first time you’re exposed to an allergen, you may only experience a mild reaction; however, others may have a severe reaction with their first known exposure. It is important to know that even small exposures can potentially trigger severe reactions. Make an appointment with your allergist/immunologist after your first reaction so you can be tested and receive proper medical guidance.
Create an Allergy Plan
Together, you and your doctor can create an Allergy Action Plan. This plan will come in handy as you learn to cope with your allergies and teach others in your life what to do in case of a reaction. Review this plan annually and make changes as necessary.
The key to prevention is avoidance. Diagnosing your allergy is the most important step for preventing future reactions. If you know what causes the reaction, you can avoid it—and the life-threatening reaction—altogether.