life-threatening allergies

Which Allergies are Life-Threatening?

While some allergies are very mild, other allergies can be life-threatening. Life-threatening allergies often lead to an anaphylaxis reaction. This rapidly developing allergic reaction can lead to anaphylactic shock, which is the most severe allergy.

Anaphylaxis is life-threatening and requires emergency treatment with an epinephrine shot. In some cases, patients may need a second shot. Severe anaphylaxis may require intubation, IV fluids, and other drugs as well.

In this article, we’ll explore life-threatening allergies that cause anaphylaxis.

peanut butter can be a life-threatening allergen

Which Allergens are Likely to Cause Anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis is often associated with allergens that you can inject or ingest. These methods of contact allow the allergen to reach the bloodstream quickly. Some life-threatening allergens include insect stings, foods, drugs, or chemical substances.

Some of the most common causes of life-threatening allergies include:

  • Penicillin
  • Bee stings
  • Shellfish
  • Peanuts
  • X-ray dye
  • Latex

Food allergies are the most common trigger of anaphylaxis in children. Meanwhile, drugs are the number one cause of anaphylaxis in adults.

life-threatening allergies can lead to anaphylactic shock

Symptoms of Anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis involves the reaction of many organs such as the skin, lungs, nose, throat, and gastrointestinal tract. At first, symptoms of anaphylactic shock are mild. They may look like a simple allergy with a runny nose or skin rash.

However, symptoms become worse within 30 minutes of exposure to the allergen. Anaphylactic shock symptoms include:

  • Hives all over the body
  • Swelling of the tongue or throat
  • Severe nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Tightness of the chest
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Weak pulse
  • Pale skin
  • Hoarse voice
  • Trouble swallowing

If someone has life-threatening allergies that risk anaphylactic shock, they should avoid allergens. Those with a history of serious allergic reactions should carry an epinephrine kit.

With the release of the COVID-19 vaccine, people are concerned about allergic reactions. According to the CDC, anaphylaxis cases related to these vaccines are rare. However, all vaccination sites have epinephrine, antihistamines, and blood pressure monitors available.

Are Life-Threatening Allergies More Severe in Children or Adults?

There needs to be more research done to answer this question. Both children and adults can experience anaphylaxis. The American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology says 26 million children and 50 million adults have allergies.

Some research shows adults are more likely to have serious reactions to medication. The most common drug allergies include:

  • Penicillin
  • Antibiotics
  • Heart medications (beta-blockers and ACE inhibitors)
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Aspirin

According to a 2018 study, 1% of drug allergies were linked to anaphylaxis. Drinking alcohol may further raise the risk of anaphylactic shock.

Children may experience severe forms of allergy from foods and insect venoms. Sometimes children outgrow these allergies and don’t experience reactions later on in life.

Food allergies are currently the number one, most frequent adult-onset form of allergy. According to 2017 data from the US, almost half of food allergies in adults develop in adulthood.

Which foods are the most common allergens? According to the FDA, the most common food allergens are:

  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts
  • Shellfish
  • Fish
  • Soybeans
  • Wheat
  • Cow’s milk
  • Corn

Interestingly, some people with allergies to cow dairy tolerate sheep, goat, and buffalo dairy.

Fatal Anaphylaxis

The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology published a study in 2017 saying 5% of Americans have suffered anaphylaxis. While anaphylaxis is a reaction to life-threatening allergies, death is rare. It’s especially rare for food and insect sting allergies. However, fatal drug anaphylaxis is increasing.

There are certain risk factors that increase the likeliness of death from anaphylaxis. One risk is delaying epinephrine shots for food allergies to nuts, seafood, and milk. Middle-aged Caucasian men with cardiovascular disease allergic to insect stings are also at risk.

allergist identifying life-threatening allergies

Diagnosing Life-Threatening Allergies

Doctors are able to find out which allergies are life-threatening for individuals. They use the results from skin tests and in vitro IgE tests to find the underlying cause of anaphylaxis. These tests show the presence of IgE antibodies when exposed to potential allergens. However, these tests are not widely available for drug allergies.

Certain blood tests like plasma histamine, serum, or plasma total tryptase, can aid in diagnosing anaphylaxis. Doctors use these tests soon after anaphylactic shock symptoms develop.

Doctors will also differentiate anaphylaxis from other conditions that show similar symptoms. These conditions may require a different treatment than anaphylaxis. Conditions with similar symptoms include:

  • Vasovagal reactions
  • Severe acute asthma
  • Aspiration of foreign body
  • Pulmonary embolism
  • Acute anxiety
  • Heart conditions
  • Low blood sugar
  • Seizures

Someone who experiences recurring episodes of anaphylaxis may have systemic mastocytosis. This is a rare condition that causes excess mast cells, a type of white blood cell, in the body.
Signs and symptoms of systemic mastocytosis include:

  • Flushed and itchy skin
  • Hives
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Anemia or blood disorders
  • Muscle and bone pain
  • Mood changes
  • Enlarged spleen, liver, and lymph nodes

If you experience anaphylactic shock due to life-threatening allergies, talk to your doctor.


When someone has life-threatening allergies, they are at risk of anaphylaxis. This allergic reaction rarely causes death but is definitely a shock. If experiencing anaphylactic shock, medical attention is immediately required.

Talk to your doctor about your life-threatening allergies and how to prevent reactions. This could save your life one day.

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