Maybe you’ve heard about companies recalling some of their products due to “peanut contaminations” or maybe your kids’ school has gone nut-free. It’s just a peanut—what’s the big deal? For people with severe peanut allergies, it’s a huge deal. In fact, a severe allergy can cause hospitalization or worse.

More than 50 million people in the U.S. have allergies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). About 200,000 Americans will, at some point, have anaphylaxis, a body-wide allergic reaction that can be life-threatening and even fatal.

Invaders and antibodies

When you have an allergic reaction, your body is trying to protect you. Allergic reactions are meant to protect the body from foreign substances, but sometimes the reaction is so severe it hurts you instead.

An allergen is something that provokes a strong immune system reaction in some people but not others. Common allergens that can lead to anaphylaxis include peanuts, shellfish, antibiotics and, especially in the spring and summer, insect bites or stings. The immune system produces antibodies that attack these allergens and cause an allergic reaction.

A full-body reaction

There’s a wide range of allergic reactions, but anaphylaxis is the most serious type. Allergic reactions are generally minor the first time you’re exposed to an allergen. However, as the immune system produces more and more antibodies to prepare for the next encounter with the allergen, reactions become much more severe.

An anaphylactic reaction is body-wide and begins quickly – usually within minutes of coming into contact with an allergen. Hives, itching or a rash all over your body are signs of anaphylaxis. Nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, difficulty swallowing, low blood pressure and swelling are other signs of a serious allergic reaction.

What to do

The cornerstone of treatment is epinephrine, which is available as an auto-injector but you must get a prescription for it from your doctor. Steroids and antihistamines may also help. It’s important to talk to your doctor about what’s right for you, and to practice with a practice injector if you are prescribed epinephrine. Remember, you still need to go to the hospital even if the medication or epinephrine stops the allergic reaction, since secondary reactions can recur after four to eight hours or even later.

If you suspect someone near you is having an anaphylactic reaction, look for the full-body symptoms and know that anaphylaxis is an emergency. Follow your doctor’s instructions for treatment and call 911 right away if you notice or experience any symptoms.

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