Life-Threatening Allergic Reactions
March is upon us and so is the pollen. Even though spring does not officially start for a couple more weeks, many people with allergies would argue that it is already here. An allergic reaction is an overreaction of a person’s immune system to a substance it deems harmful. There are many types of allergies. Some are seasonal and others are year-round. While most people with allergies will only have relatively mild reactions (e.g., runny nose, skin irritation, sneezing, coughing, etc.), there are some people who could have a deadly reaction.
Anaphylaxis is a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction. It can occur within seconds or minutes of exposure to something you're allergic to, such as peanuts or bee stings. Recent studies estimate that up to 5% of the US population has suffered anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis causes the immune system to release a flood of chemicals that can cause you to go into shock — blood pressure drops suddenly and the airways narrow, blocking breathing. Signs and symptoms include a rapid, weak pulse; a skin rash; and nausea and vomiting. Common triggers include certain foods, some medications, insect venom and latex. Anaphylaxis requires an injection of epinephrine and a follow-up trip to an emergency room. If you don't have epinephrine, you need to go to an emergency room immediately. If anaphylaxis isn't treated right away, it can be fatal.
This spring, as you look at the yellow dust covering everything, take the time to think about what you would do if someone around you had a severe allergic reaction. Would you know what to look for? Would you know how to react? The following article will help you prepare for and help train workers on how to deal with someone suffering from a severe allergic reaction.
Training Workers to Deal with Life-Threatening Allergic Reactions
By L&D Daily Advisor Staff Jan 11, 2017 HR Management & Compliance Updated: 1/11/2017
A great many people suffer from allergies, and an unfortunate minority have allergies so severe that their reaction is a life-threatening condition called “anaphylaxis.” Today’s Advisor will provide you with a brief—but potentially life-saving—training session on how to deal with anaphylaxis.
Individuals who know they have a life-threatening allergy will usually avoid exposure and carry an epinephrine injection device, commonly called an EpiPen®, that interrupts the reaction. However, many people don’t know they have a potentially deadly allergy until they experience their first life-threatening reaction.
To respond effectively to anaphylactic shock in the workplace, workers need to know the signs and symptoms of anaphylactic shock and what they should do.
Who needs to be trained? No specific Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standard requires training for anaphylaxis, but anaphylaxis is included in most first-aid training.
Why train workers to respond to anaphylaxis? Even prompt emergency medical assistance can sometimes arrive too late to help anaphylaxis victims. Workers who respond appropriately could save a coworker’s, customer’s, or client’s life.
Furthermore, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology has created a wallet card listing symptoms and treatment for anaphylaxis that you can use as a handout during and/or after the session.
One in five Americans is allergic to something—a food product, drug, chemical, insect bite, or plant pollen. Allergies occur when our bodies overreact to proteins in our environment. Symptoms range from runny noses to life-threatening reactions involving the heart and lungs. These life-threatening allergic reactions are called “anaphylaxis.”
Some substances are more likely to provoke an allergic reaction. If it is a chemical in your workplace, the safety data sheet (SDS) will list it as a sensitizer or potential allergen; some of these chemicals can cause anaphylaxis.
In addition, however, your workplace may contain many substances that could cause an anaphylactic reaction that will not have SDSs, including:
Foods. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires food labels to list the eight most common food allergens: dairy, egg, wheat, soy, seafood, fish, tree nuts, and peanuts.
Indoor/outdoor allergens. The most common indoor/outdoor allergens are animal dander, pollen, mold, and dust mites.
Drugs. Common allergenic drugs include penicillin drugs, anticonvulsants, insulin, iodine contrast dyes, and sulfa drugs.
Insect bites and stings. Biting insects, like flies or mosquitoes, can cause mild allergic reactions, but stinging insects are far more likely to cause anaphylaxis. These insects include bees (honeybees and bumblebees), wasps (yellow jackets, paper wasps, and hornets), and stinging ants like fire ants.
One of the most dangerous things about an anaphylactic reaction is that victims may not know they have this kind of allergy until they suffer a life-threatening reaction. In fact, they may not have had a previous problem with the allergen.
People who have never been allergic to shellfish can suddenly begin reacting to it in adulthood; nurses who have worked in patient care for decades might develop life-threatening allergies to latex after years of exposure. So, it’s important to recognize the symptoms of anaphylaxis and react, even if you’re not sure what’s causing the reaction.
An allergy may cause a localized reaction (for example, swelling at the site of a sting), but anaphylaxis is a systemic reaction and affects multiple areas of the body. Symptoms of anaphylaxis include:
- Sudden hives in different places on the body;
- Wheezing, hoarseness, or difficulty breathing or speaking;
- Itchy skin or eyes;
- Skin rash;
- Swelling of the lips, tongue, or face;
- Abdominal pain or cramping, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea;
- Confusion, light-headedness, or fainting; and
- Racing pulse or palpitations (a sensation of being able to feel your heartbeat).
In as many as 90 percent of cases, hives or skin rash and swelling in and around the mouth are present. These two symptoms, plus either respiratory difficulties or blood pressure problems (light-headedness, dizziness, fainting), are considered sure signs of anaphylaxis. But don’t hesitate: If you see more than one of the symptoms above and think a person might be experiencing anaphylaxis, treat for anaphylaxis.
Anaphylaxis can reoccur anywhere from 1 to 72 hours after it initially occurs, even without further exposure to the allergen. For this reason, most people who know they have an anaphylactic allergy carry two doses of epinephrine.
If you suspect someone is suffering anaphylaxis:
- Use the EpiPen. You cannot hurt someone—even a person who is not, in fact, suffering anaphylaxis by giving them a standard dose of epinephrine.
- Call 911. Because the reaction may become worse or reoccur, it’s vital to call 911 and get medical assistance.
Because the substances that can cause anaphylaxis are so common, it’s important to recognize this life-threatening condition. When you know how to recognize and respond to the symptoms of anaphylaxis, you may be able to save the life of a coworker, customer, client, or even a family member.
Staff, L&D Daily Advisor. “Training Workers to Deal with Life-Threatening Allergic Reactions.” HR Daily Advisor, 11 Jan. 2017, https://hrdailyadvisor.blr.com/2017/01/11/training-workers-deal-life-threatening-allergic-reactions/.
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