What is anaphylaxis?

You probably know someone who is severely allergic to something, like peanuts or bee stings. These allergies can cause anaphylaxis, a type of severe reaction that affects your whole body. It happens quickly and can lead to life-threatening complications.

In rare cases, anaphylaxis is caused by physical activity. A combination of exercise and other contributing factors such as food, weather conditions, or medications can cause exercise-induced anaphylaxis.

More vigorous exercises are usually blamed for exercise-induced anaphylaxis. However, it can happen during any physical activity, such as raking leaves or tearing it up on the dance floor.

Eating particular foods before exercising may bring on an allergic reaction. Peanuts, shellfish, tomatoes, corn, and wheat are associated with exercise-induced anaphylaxis, although any food can be a trigger. This is referred to as food-dependent exercise-induced anaphylaxis.

Certain medications like aspirin and anti-inflammatories can trigger the reaction as well as can extreme temperatures, humidity, and hormonal changes.

Symptoms can come on suddenly. They may be mild at first but can accelerate rapidly. Common symptoms include:

  • hives
  • nausea
  • dizziness
  • swelling
  • cramps
  • diarrhea
  • coughing, wheezing, or difficulty breathing

This can turn into a life-threatening situation requiring immediate medical attention. Severe cases may progress to shock, loss of consciousness, and respiratory or cardiac arrest.

Stop what you’re doing and rest if you feel early symptoms of exercise-induced anaphylaxis. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

Call 911 immediately if symptoms escalate in you or someone near you. Signs of anaphylactic shock escalating include:

  • pale, clammy skin
  • weak, rapid pulse
  • breathing problems
  • confusion and loss of consciousness

If the person has emergency medication like an epinephrine auto-injector, you may need to help administer it. Don’t attempt to give oral medications to someone who can’t breathe. It may be necessary to begin CPR while waiting for emergency responders. If you don’t know how to perform CPR, try to find someone who does.

The emergency medical team will try to help the person breathe and keep their heart beating. They may use adrenaline, or epinephrine, to lessen the body’s allergic response.

Emergency responders may also use intravenous antihistamines or cortisone to decrease inflammation in the air passages. The allergic reaction can cause airways to inflame, to the point of closing up and blocking airflow to the lungs. Medications called beta-agonists can also help ease troubled breathing.

See your doctor for a complete physical if you’ve experienced exercise-induced anaphylaxis. Keep a record of foods you eat and the conditions you are in before exercising. Figure out how long before exercise you should avoid the offending food, trigger, or allergen.

Avoid exercising outdoors during allergy season and in extreme temperatures. Exercise with a partner who is aware of your condition and who will know what to do in an emergency.

Pinpointing the factors that contribute to anaphylaxis will help you prevent future attacks.

Your doctor will probably prescribe an auto-injector, or EpiPen®, if you have exercise-induced anaphylaxis. It injects epinephrine into your system to slow the allergic reaction.

Seconds count, so make sure you understand how and when to use it. Tell those closest to you that you carry an auto-injector and teach them how to use it.

The auto-injector isn’t a cure in itself, it just slows the allergic reaction, so be sure to go to the hospital immediately after using it.

It’s important that you carry the auto-injector with you at all times and replace it before it expires.

The good news is that anaphylaxis is usually very treatable if you act quickly. If you have a known allergy, carry your medications, especially your EpiPen, with you when you exercise.

Try to avoid known triggers. Always remember that this is a serious allergy and you must treat it as such. Complications can include loss of consciousness, shock, respiratory arrest, and cardiac arrest, which can lead to death.

Alert your family and friends to your condition and teach them what to do in an emergency. You may also consider wearing a medical alert tag. Read all labels carefully if you have a food allergy.

Stop and rest at the first sign of anaphylaxis. Keep your medications and a cell phone on you when exercising.

Exercise is good for you. As long as you take the proper precautions and listen to your body’s signals, you should be able to continue exercising.