First Aid You Should Know: How to Treat Allergic Reaction

Written by Ann Pietrangelo | Published on August 26, 2013
Medically Reviewed by George T. Krucik, MD, MBA on August 26, 2013

What Is an Allergic Reaction?

It’s your immune system’s job to protect you from foreign substances that can make you ill. It does this by creating antibodies.

Sometimes your immune system identifies foreign bodies as harmful, even though they aren’t. Common allergens include bee venom, pollen, and pet dander. Common food allergens include peanuts, milk, wheat products, shellfish, and strawberries.

This overreaction can cause mild symptoms like skin irritation, watery eyes, or sneezing. It can also cause anaphylaxis, a severe reaction that can lead to respiratory failure and cardiac arrest.

Identifying an Allergic Reaction

Symptoms depend on the allergy and can vary from person to person. Allergic reactions can cause hives, rashes, and other skin irritations. Some food allergies can cause diarrhea, bloating, and other digestive issues. Other signs of allergy include swelling, congestion, and runny eyes and nose.

The most serious allergic reactions cause anaphylaxis. This is a medical emergency. Signs include lightheadedness, nausea, and weak pulse. Swelling of the airways can interfere with breathing. Untreated anaphylaxis can lead to loss of consciousness, respiratory distress, and cardiac arrest.

Treating Minor Symptoms

Minor allergic reactions can be safely treated at home. Over-the-counter antihistamines and decongestants can ease congestion and breathing problems. These medications are generally available as tablets, eye drops, and nasal sprays.

Swelling, redness, and itching may be reduced with the use of ice and topical creams that contain corticosteroids. Acetaminophen can lessen pain. If symptoms persist, your doctor can prescribe more powerful medications.

Epinephrine for Anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening condition. Call 911 immediately. Emergency personnel usually administer epinephrine (adrenaline) immediately. The sooner you receive a dose of epinephrine, the greater your chances for survival.

Once you’ve experienced anaphylaxis, your doctor can prescribe emergency epinephrine (EpiPen®) so you can carry it with you. The autoinjector comes with a single dose of medication you can inject into your thigh. Remember to replace the medication if unused by the expiration date. Educate family and close friends on how to administer the medication in the event of an emergency.

CPR for Anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis may cause loss of consciousness, respiratory arrest, and cardiac arrest. Call 911 immediately. Then, check the victim’s airway, breathing, and circulation. If necessary, perform rescue breathing and CPR.

Try to keep the person calm. Never attempt to give oral medications to someone who is having trouble breathing or place anything under their head. Raise the person’s feet about 12 inches and cover them with a blanket.

Poisonous Plants

According to The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, about 70 percent of U.S. residents develop an allergic reaction following exposure to poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. Symptoms can vary from mild redness and itching to blisters and swelling.

If you’ve run afoul of these poisonous plants, don’t scratch. Avoid soap and take a cool shower. Soothe your skin with colloidal oatmeal products or hydrocortisone creams.

Antihistamines can lessen itching and inflammation. If symptoms are severe, your doctor may prescribe stronger oral steroids or creams.

Stinging Insects

Most of us have minor reactions to insect bites. If you’re bitten by a stinging insect, remove the stinger using an object with a straight edge (like a credit card) and a brushing motion. Pulling or squeezing a stinger may release more venom into your body.

Thoroughly wash the site with soap and water. Apply ice to decrease swelling. You may use over-the-counter acetaminophen for pain.

Jellyfish Stings

A jellyfish sting can ruin a perfectly relaxing day at the beach. The skin around the sting can become swollen and red, causing pain and itchiness.

If you’ve had an unfortunate encounter with a jellyfish, wash the site with seawater or in vinegar for 30 minutes. This will neutralize the toxin. Ice can soothe your skin and lessen pain. Use hydrocortisone cream and antihistamine to reduce swelling.

Despite popular wisdom, the the British Red Cross advises that urinating on a jellyfish sting won’t help—and may actually increase pain and cause harm.

Beyond First Aid

Once you’ve had an allergic reaction, it’s important to identify the source so you can avoid it in the future. You should:

  1. Check the ingredients of products around your house. Many contain fragrances or dyes that can irritate your skin.
  2. Be sure to read food labels carefully. Packaged foods often contain surprising ingredients.
  3. Stock your medicine cabinet with over-the-counter topical treatment, antihistamines, and pain relievers.
  4. Ask your doctor to prescribe emergency epinephrine if you’ve ever had anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is always a medical emergency. Episodes of anaphylaxis should always be followed up with medical care.
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