When Your Child Has Anaphylaxis

Certain foods, insect bites and stings, and some medicines can cause allergic reactions in children who are sensitive to them. Anaphylaxis is the most severe type of allergic reaction. It may happen from a few minutes to an hour or two after contact with an allergen. An allergen is a substance that your child is allergic to. Anaphylaxis can cause the airways to swell, making it hard to breathe. It also may cause a sudden drop in blood pressure. That means less oxygen reaches your child’s brain and other vital organs. Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency. It can be fatal if not treated quickly.

Female doctor checking on a child in a hospital bed.

What causes anaphylaxis?

Children can react to many substances, but some of the most common allergens include:

  • Foods, especially milk, egg, wheat, soy, peanuts, shellfish, and tree nuts such as almonds, cashews, and walnuts

  • Insect bites and stings

  • Medicines such as antibiotics

  • Latex, a type of rubber

  • Allergy shots

What are the symptoms of anaphylaxis?

In an allergic reaction, the immune system mistakes a substance as harmful and floods the whole body with powerful chemicals. These chemicals can cause symptoms such as:

  • Itching skin and raised bumps on the skin (hives)

  • Swelling of the mouth or face

  • Trouble breathing, cough, sneezing, runny nose, wheezing, or trouble swallowing

  • Lightheadedness, dizziness, or fainting

  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea

  • Stomach pain or cramping

  • Confusion

  • Slurred speech

  • Anxiety or feeling of doom

If your child has symptoms of anaphylaxis, act quickly!

If your healthcare provider has prescribed an epinephrine autoinjector, use it right away. Then call 911 or emergency services.

How is anaphylaxis treated?

In the hospital:

  • Your child is likely to be given epinephrine (adrenaline) and antihistamines to help stop the allergic response.

  • The healthcare provider will ask about substances your child may have been exposed to and whether a similar reaction has happened before. Your child may need certain tests.

  • Your child will be watched for a few hours or overnight to make sure symptoms don’t return.

  • Your child will be referred to his or her healthcare provider or an allergist for follow-up care. An allergist is a healthcare provider with special training in treating allergies.

Using injectable epinephrine

To treat a future attack, the healthcare provider will prescribe an epinephrine autoinjector. This is epinephrine in a form you or your child can use. It is a pen with a hidden needle that’s released by a spring. Here is how to use one type of epinephrine autoinjector. Your healthcare provider or pharmacist can tell you about other types.

  • Grasp the pen in the middle, not on the end.

  • Snap off the safety cap.

  • Point the tip of the pen anywhere on the outside of your child’s thigh.

  • Push the pen into the thigh. Wait to hear a click, and then hold for 10 seconds to release the epinephrine.

  • As soon as you’ve given the shot, call 911.

  • Have your child lie down with legs raised or a pillow under the knees until help arrives.

Older children should be taught how and when to use the epinephrine autoinjector themselves.

Preventing anaphylaxis

To help prevent allergic reactions:

  • Food allergies. Read package labels carefully, use caution in restaurants, and explain your child’s allergy to teachers, caregivers, and other parents.

  • Bee or wasp allergies. Have your child wear long sleeves, long pants, and shoes outdoors. Don't let your child wear clothing with flowery patterns or bright colors. Strong smells can attract bees, so tell your child not to use perfume, cologne, or highly scented laundry soaps. Use caution in fields, gardens, picnic areas, and around garbage cans.

  • Tell your child’s healthcare provider, dentist, and pharmacist of any allergies your child has to medicines. Keep a list of alternate medicines handy.

Keeping your child safe in an emergency 

These precautions can help keep your child safe in an emergency:

  • Tell key people about your child’s allergy. This includes adults who spend time with your child, such as childcare providers, teachers, and other parents. Let them know the warning signs of an allergic reaction and what to do if it happens. Teach them how to use the epinephrine autoinjector.

  • Prepare an action plan. Describe how to care for your child in case of an allergic reaction. Give a copy of the plan to the school nurse, food service workers, and people who care for your child.

  • Have your child wear a medical alert bracelet. This explains your child’s allergy to anyone who comes to your child’s aid. You can buy the bracelet in most drugstores and on the Internet.

  • Have more than one epinephrine autoinjector on hand. Keep one at your child’s school or daycare center, and at least one in a safe place at home. Also have one for you or your child to carry. Be sure to replace any unused epinephrine autoinjectors once a year.

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© 2000-2017 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.