What Anaphylaxis Feels Like -- The AllergistMommy's Own Story

One of the things that helps me be a better allergist is that I know, first hand, what it feels like to experience anaphylaxis. 

I am severely allergic to blueberries. Here's what happened when I experienced my first episode of anaphylaxis:

Red, itchy palms.
They felt hot and uncomfortable (as though they were being cooked from the inside out), and I found myself rubbing them against my thighs because they were so itchy.

Painful abdominal cramping. 
This pain made me feel like my innards were being wrung out like a wet dishrag, and was followed by a sneaking suspicion that if I elected to go the bathroom at that very moment, I might just evacuate the entire contents of my body in a single second.

Incessant throat-clearing. 
I felt like something was caught in my throat, but I just couldn't clear it. I was trying to be quiet, because I didn't want to bother anyone, but I couldn't stop. When I finally spoke up for help, my voice was hoarse.

Involuntary coughing, which I couldn't suppress.
The coughs were dry and weak, as though I didn't have the power to put any gusto into them. It felt unnatural and non-productive for someone accustomed to being able to hack up giant loogies on demand.

A sense of nervousness. 
Many people speak of a feeling of impending doom, but no one is ever going to walk up to you and say, "I feel as though my doom is imminent. Can you please help me?" I just felt that something was not right, and that things were going to get worse before they got better. I found myself looking around the room in hopes that someone would catch the desperation in my eyes and save me from whatever was about to go down.

A whistling noise when inhaling, which was caused by the steadily increasing swelling of my laryngeal tissues. I had to lean forward with my chin jutting out to breathe, looking like a self-conscious waterfowl. If I didn't adopt this unusual pose, I sounded as though I was being strangled. Which is exactly how I felt.

Here's what I didn't have:

Hives and Swelling
Although my previous reactions to accidental blueberry exposure had always been urticaria (hives), on this particular morning, I had happened to take a long-acting antihistamine tablet, which may have prevented any hives or facial swelling from appearing. Nevertheless, my reaction was just as dangerous (if not more so, because the usual tip-offs didn't manifest). Not all severe allergic reactions are obvious to the casual observer. However, it's essential to recognize that just because you don't see someone covered in hives or having their lips blow up like a balloon, it doesn't mean that a serious allergic reaction isn't occurring on the inside of their body, where no one can see it.

Lesson I took away from this experience:
1. Always carry epinephrine. ALWAYS carry epinephrine.

2. Be alert for the sudden onset of throat-clearing and coughing. Anyone who starts doing that in my office gets an immediate evaluation.

3. Take people (especially children!) seriously when they tell you something isn't right. Don't tell a kid who comes to you looking terrified that "Everything will be fine, just drink a glass of water to clear your throat." This feeling of impending doom is real, and scarily accurate. Stay with that person!

4. Don't be afraid to approach someone who appears uneasy, even if they don't ask for help. Many people experiencing allergic reactions try to suppress their symptoms, because they don't want to be a bother. It isn't nosy to ask someone if they need help, it's courteous and caring.

And most importantly...

5. Don't eat blueberries.


  1. Awesome!
    This is what my daughter, 14 describes, it is the ultimate inner feeling, i send you here the copy what is on my blog too.

    And this is what I find this week. Her leads Within a context of influences she shared is at school in English class.

    A pungent taste arises in my mouth. My stomach clenches in a big knot. I feel my cheeks grow warm, like a sudden fever. My saliva thickens and I have trouble breathing. Every single nerve in my body tenses. Panic overtakes my body. I leave the room. Two full glasses of cold water and a couple of pills further, I lay down at the bed. When my nerves slowly relax, I, very carefully, breath out again. I realise that I have been holding in my breath. These actions usually surprise me once a month. My allergies have been an immense influence in my life becaus they 'control' my everyday life. I can never ea anything I want. I can never drunk from someone else's bottle.

    (September 2011' Rabat, Rabat American school, Solange

    Kindly, Paulien Martin-

  2. This is very interesting to read as I have never had an anaphylactic episode and my young son would never be able to explain how he felt in such detail. Do you mind if I repost on my blog with a link back to your site? It's good for parents to know what their kids may go through and what it really feels like.

  3. @itchylittleworld, I'd be honored if you would repost -- thank you!


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