Anaphylaxis is a severe, life-threatening, generalised or systemic hypersensitivity reaction. It is characterised by rapidly developing, life-threatening problems involving: the airway (pharyngeal or laryngeal oedema) and/or breathing (bronchospasm with tachypnoea) and/or circulation (hypotension and/or tachycardia). According to Resuscitation Council UK's guideline on emergency treatment of anaphylactic reactions, in most cases, there are associated skin and mucosal changes.
In emergency departments a person who presents with the signs and symptoms listed above may be classified as having a 'severe allergic' reaction rather than an 'anaphylactic' reaction. Throughout this guideline, anyone who presents with such signs and symptoms is classed as experiencing a 'suspected anaphylactic reaction', and should be diagnosed as having 'suspected anaphylaxis'.
People who have had a mild or moderate allergic reaction are at risk of, and may subsequently present with, suspected anaphylaxis. Certain groups may be at higher risk, either because of an existing comorbidity (for example asthma) or because they are more likely to be exposed to the same allergen again (for example people with venom allergies or reactions to specific food triggers). These groups were not included within the scope of this guideline, which is specific to those who have received emergency treatment for suspected anaphylaxis.
Anaphylaxis may be an allergic response that is immunologically mediated, or a non-immunologically mediated response, or idiopathic. Certain foods, insect venoms, some drugs and latex are common precipitants of immunoglobulin E (IgE)-mediated allergic anaphylaxis. Many drugs can also act through non‑allergic mechanisms. A significant proportion of anaphylaxis is classified as idiopathic, in which there are significant clinical effects but no readily identifiable cause. The relative likelihood of the reaction being allergic, non‑allergic or idiopathic varies considerably with age.
Food is a particularly common trigger in children, while medicinal products are much more common triggers in older people. In the UK it is estimated that 500,000 people have had a venom-induced anaphylactic reaction and 220,000 people up to the age of 44 have had a nut-induced anaphylactic reaction.
There is no overall figure for the frequency of anaphylaxis from all causes in the UK. Because anaphylaxis presents mainly in accident and emergency departments and outpatient settings, few estimates of prevalence are available from NHS sources. Anaphylaxis may not be recorded, or may be misdiagnosed as something else, for example, asthma. It may also be recorded by cause, such as food allergy, rather than as an anaphylactic reaction.
Available UK estimates suggest that approximately 1 in 1333 of the population of England has experienced anaphylaxis at some point in their lives. There are approximately 20 deaths from anaphylaxis reported each year in the UK, with around half the deaths being iatrogenic, although this may be an underestimate.
After an acute anaphylactic reaction, it is believed that many people do not receive optimal management of their condition. One reason for this is healthcare professionals' lack of understanding when making a diagnosis, for example failing to differentiate anaphylaxis from less severe histamine-releasing reactions or from other conditions that mimic some or all of its clinical features. Another reason is a lack of understanding of when or where to refer patients. This can affect the likelihood of the person receiving a definitive diagnosis, which can lead to anxiety, inappropriate management and recurrent reactions. It can also lead to avoidable costs for the NHS and increase the need for acute care.