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How To Respond In An Anaphylaxis Emergency

You can never be too prepared! Here are the steps to take if a child is experiencing an anaphylactic reaction to food.

Anaphylaxis, although uncommon, can become life-threatening in a short time, and parents and carers need to be aware of the symptoms and signs and take immediate action.

What Is Allergy And Anaphylaxis?

An allergic reaction occurs when the body’s immune system reacts to a foreign substance by releasing chemicals into the bloodstream, potentially causing rashes, swelling, itchiness and other symptoms. In anaphylaxis these substances are released in very large amounts, which can cause rapid swelling, acute respiratory distress, and circulatory collapse. So anaphylaxis is a massive overreaction to this foreign substance.

What Are The Most Common Types of Food Allergies?

Food allergies affect about one in 10 babies, and Australia and New Zealand have among the highest rates of allergic disorders in the developed world. Most child allergic responses to foods are caused by cow’s milk, soy, eggs, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish.

What Are The Signs Of Anaphylaxis?

  • Parents and carers should always take seriously complaints by a child of:
  • Tingling lips or tongue
  • Any feeling of swelling within the mouth, or ‘feeling funny’
  • A sudden rash
  • Difficulty breathing.

The symptoms of anaphylaxis also include sudden-onset abdominal pain, as well as diarrhea and vomiting.

Many of these symptoms can indicate other, much less harmful problems, but if they occur suddenly, together, or in a child with a known history of allergy, asthma or eczema, they may be a sign of anaphylaxis.

The best way to examine your child is with the ABCDE approach: airway, breathing, circulation, disability and exposure.

  • Airway: The most urgent thing to diagnose is any swelling of the airway, as this may prevent normal breathing. If there are any signs of swelling of the lips or tongue, especially along with a wheeze or other noisy breathing, call 000 immediately.
  • Breathing: Fast breathing, especially with a wheeze or other airway noises, can signify serious illness. One of the vital things to look for is if a child is having to work hard to breathe. Check if the skin between or below the ribs is being sucked in with breathing, or if the muscles of the neck are straining to help pull air in.
  • Circulation: Pallor and blue lips in a child indicate potential problems with circulation.
  • Disability: Disability refers to impaired brain or neurological function. We identify this by collapse or decreased level of consciousness, which of course requires an immediate 000 call.
  • Exposure refers to the characteristic rash of allergy or anaphylaxis, which is itchy, pink or red with a pale centre, raised up off the skin. The rash may be small or joined together in large areas.

Anaphylaxis Treatment

Mild allergies are treated with antihistamines, which prevent further release of the substances causing the reaction, but do not treat the severe symptoms of anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is treated by an injection of adrenaline administered by doctors, nurses or paramedics.

As well, children who have a known history of anaphylaxis will be prescribed an adrenaline autoinjector (such as an Epipen), a device that enables parents and carers to administer an immediate adrenaline injection. Prescribed autoinjectors should be carried at all times, and teachers and other adult carers must be instructed on their use.

If your child has never had an allergic reaction, or only a mild reaction, they can still have an anaphylactic reaction later.

If parents suspect anaphylaxis, it is vital to use an autoinjector if available, or call 000 (triple zero) immediately.

There can be a significant worsening of a child’s condition if parents or carers delay making an emergency call because they are waiting for medications such as antihistamines to take effect.


Words by Paul Middleton

Guest Contributer
Guest Contributor
guest@childmags.com.au