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The greatest danger in food allergy comes from anaphylaxis, a violent allergic reaction involving a number of parts of the body simultaneously. Like less serious allergic reactions, anaphylaxis usually occurs after a person is exposed to an allergen to which he or she was sensitized by previous exposure (that is, it does not usually occur the first time a person eats a particular food). Although any food can trigger anaphylaxis (also known as anaphylactic shock), peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, milk, eggs, and fish are the most common culprits. As little as one-fifth to one-five-thousandth of a teaspoon of the offending food has caused death.
Anaphylaxis can produce severe symptoms in as little as 5 to 15 minutes, although life-threatening reactions may progress over hours. Signs of such a reaction include: difficulty breathing, feeling of impending doom, swelling of the mouth and throat, a drop in blood pressure, and loss of consciousness. The sooner that anaphylaxis is treated, the greater the person's chance of surviving. The person should be taken to a hospital emergency room, even if symptoms seem to subside on their own.
There is no specific test to predict the likelihood of anaphylaxis, although allergy testing may help determine what a person may be allergic to and provide some guidance as to the severity of the allergy. Experts advise people who are susceptible to anaphylaxis to carry medication, such as injectable epinephrine, with them at all times, and to check the medicine's expiration date regularly. Doctors can instruct patients with allergies on how to self-administer epinephrine. Such prompt treatment can be crucial to survival.