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What Is a Severe Allergy?

A severe allergy is an allergic reaction with symptoms so intense that they interfere with the patient's ability to engage in regular activities. This can include everything from needing to take sick leave on days with high pollen count to experiencing anaphylaxis, a severe form of shock, in response to exposure to the allergen. Patients with severe allergies have to be extremely careful about potential exposures and may carry medication to manage allergic responses.

Many patients experience sensitivities to pollen, certain foods, and other compounds they may encounter. They can feel uncomfortable after exposure to the compound, but should not experience serious health problems. Others may experience moderate allergy symptoms like itching, hives, intestinal discomfort, and runny noses. In patients with severe allergies, the reactions are so intense that the patient may not be able to work, care for children, and perform other tasks. In some patients, the reaction could be fatal.

Severe allergies can cause a response, such as swelling of the eyelids, a painful rash, or difficulty breathing, significant enough to make it difficult for a patient to go to work or school. The reaction associated with a severe allergy may vary in intensity depending on the extent of the exposure. Patients with a severe allergy must be careful to avoid their allergens with the goal of minimizing disruption to their lives.

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A patient with a severe allergy can develop anaphylaxis, a chain reaction that starts with itching and tingling around the exposure site, rashes, and shortness of breath. The patient's airways will close without medical intervention, leading to death because the patient cannot get enough air. In patients with allergies this severe, epinephrine can be provided in an emergency to keep the patient's airways open long enough for her to reach a medical facility. The patient may carry a syringe of this drug to be prepared for an exposure.

Bees or nuts are common culprits behind a severe allergy. Exposure to even a small amount of the allergen, such as nut residue in the cabin of an aircraft, can cause severe distress in the patient. Accommodations to avoid triggers may involve significant lifestyle changes. It may not be possible for a patient to go to restaurants or engage in other activities due to concerns about exposure to the allergen, and people around the patient have to be careful as well; employees working with someone who has a severe peanut allergy, for example, must wash their hands and brush their teeth after eating peanut products on breaks, and may be asked not to bring peanut products into the workplace.

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