These Are the Signs You're Having an Allergic Reaction

Aug 23, 2018 at 3:00 p.m. ET
Woman mid-sneeze using a handkerchief
Image: CSA Images/Getty Images.

You can be allergic to just about anything. From grass and trees to mold, from medication to specific types of foods, from pets to dust, allergies can crop up suddenly — or you can experience them on the regular. 

They can be a minor irritation, but they can also interfere with your comfort, and they can even be life-threatening. While some allergy signs and symptoms are obvious and apparent, there are others that are kind of sneaky. Let's take a look to see the signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction.

Allergic reaction signs & symptoms

According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, there are (unfortunately) oodles of things that can trigger an allergic reaction. Whether you're allergic to peanuts, your neighbor's cat or ragweed, allergies can affect your body in all sorts of unpleasant ways. 

Along the same lines, the University of Rochester Medical Center notes that allergies are an immune system overreaction to a substance that normally isn't harmful, such as latex or cat dander. It produces antibodies that attack the allergen, resulting in the signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction, which can range in severity from mild to severe.

Here are the signs you're having an allergic reaction, according to the ACAAI:

Nose issues 

Some allergies can result in nose problems, including sneezing, runny or red nose, itchy nose and stuffy nose, the ACAAI notes. If you find yourself constantly reaching for a tissue or rubbing your nose (and you don't have a cold), it may be allergies. 

More: Are Your Cold Symptoms Actually Allergies?

Wheezing or shortness of breath

While you may associate wheezing with asthma, it can also be a sign of an allergic reaction — and asthma is, after all, related to allergies and is often triggered by exposure to an allergen according to the ACAAI. Wheezing is described as a whistling sound when you breathe, particularly when you exhale. Wheezing can also be a sign of a serious allergic reaction (see below about anaphylaxis).

Coughing 

Another clue that you may be experiencing an allergic reaction is a cough, the ACAAI notes. Usually, an allergy-related cough is chronic and dry, and you're also not coughing anything up (oh, and you don't have symptoms of influenza or a cold either). 

Rashes

Hives, itchy skin or a rash are all telltale signs of an allergic reaction, Dr. Alana Biggers, assistant professor of clinical medicine at the University of Illinois-Chicago College of Medicine, tells SheKnows. Allergic reactions can also result in different types of skin appearances, including eczema or contact dermatitis.

Nausea, abdominal cramping or vomiting

Many people may not associate nausea and vomiting with allergies, but it can happen and is most associated with food allergies according to the ACAAI.

Itchy eyes

Often associated with indoor or outdoor allergies, itchy, red, burning eyes that may be accompanied with a clear, watery discharge is another symptom of allergies, the ACAAI warns.

About anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis is a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction, Dr. Stephanie Benjamin, an emergency medicine specialist and author of the upcoming book Third Year, tells SheKnows. 

She explains that an allergic reaction is called "anaphylactic" when there are two or more organ systems involved — this indicates systemic involvement and can result in anaphylactic shock, which can be fatal if not treated. 

"For example, a skin rash alone may not be anaphylaxis, but a skin rash plus wheezing would be considered anaphylaxis," Benjamin says. "Alternatively, abdominal cramping and wheezing or lip swelling and hypotension or any other combination of two different systems would all count."

She also spells out when emergency epinephrine (such as an EpiPen) should be used. 

More: Here's How to Use an EpiPen

"A person should immediately use their EpiPen if there is swelling of the lips, tongue or mouth; [they are] having trouble breathing or if they are feeling dizzy — as this may indicate low blood pressure," she explains. "If the reaction is due to a bite or sting, removing the stinger is necessary to stop the reaction from continuing." 

Anaphylaxis can also involve a hoarse voice, tightness of the throat, rapid heartbeat or an impending feeling of doom. Of course, if someone doesn't know they have a severe allergy or suddenly experiences anaphylaxis, it's critical to place an emergency call (such as to 911) for immediate help.  

It's also important to note that a person should be evaluated in a hospital anytime they need to use their EpiPen — this usually means calling 911 after they've administered the emergency treatment, Benjamin says. The reason? "The effects of the epinephrine may wear off before the reaction to the allergen resolves," she explains. "The person may need additional doses of epinephrine as well as other interventions to safely and completely treat their reaction."

If you have an allergy, you're not alone

Allergies are, unfortunately, common. There are a variety of treatment options, and for some allergies, avoidance is crucial, as is carrying around emergency medication. Knowing how to recognize the signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction is an excellent step toward managing your allergies, so keep the above list in mind and treat accordingly (or visit an allergist!). 

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