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Doctor K: If allergic to bee sting, carry EpiPen

Thu., April 12, 2012, midnight

DEAR DOCTOR K: My sister-in-law has a bee-sting allergy. What happens if she gets stung? Can it be life-threatening?

DEAR READER: For someone with such an allergy, a sting can be very serious – yes, even life-threatening. If left untreated, an allergic person could die within minutes to hours after a bee sting.

Bee-sting allergies can lead to anaphylaxis, a severe, sometimes life-threatening, allergic reaction. It occurs within minutes of exposure to an allergy-causing substance (allergen). It is also sometimes called anaphylactic shock.

Anaphylaxis is the most severe allergic reaction. When this occurs, the immune system releases chemicals that cause potentially serious symptoms, including:

• Rapid pulse;

• Low blood pressure;

• Dizziness and fainting;

• Wheezing, difficulty breathing, coughing;

• Itching or burning sensations of the skin, and hives;

• Paleness, bluish skin color;

• Swelling of the lips, tongue or eyes;

• Chest tightness or chest pain;

• Gastrointestinal problems;

• Throat swelling, with a feeling of throat tightness, a lump in the throat or obstructed air flow.

The most dangerous symptoms include low blood pressure and chest pain or tightness. These symptoms can indicate that anaphylaxis has caused the arteries of the heart to go into spasm, a condition that can cause a heart attack. Above all, the swelling of the throat, if severe, can make it hard to breathe.

Anaphylaxis can improve quickly within a few hours if treated right away. With more serious symptoms, it may take a few days to fully recover after treatment.

Anaphylaxis is usually treated with an epinephrine (adrenaline) injection. Your sister-in-law probably already carries a syringe preloaded with epinephrine, or EpiPen. If she doesn’t, she should. An epinephrine injection can keep her throat from swelling shut and suffocating her.

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