22 February 2024

Understanding allergies and anaphylaxis

Knowing about allergies enables you to recognise the signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction.

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Allergens – allergic triggers, which include airborne allergens (such as dust and pollen), food allergens, insect venom, medication, and rubber products

Allergy – occurs when the immune system reacts to an allergen in the environment. A reaction often occurs within minutes or up to a few hours after contact. It can range from mild, to severe, to life-threatening.

Anaphylaxis – the most severe form of allergic reaction, often affecting several parts of the body, including the respiratory system and/or the cardiovascular system. It can be caused by exposure to allergens such as food, insects, latex, or medication. Anaphylaxis is potentially life-threatening.

Anaphylaxis is always a medical emergency. An ambulance must be called and the child must see a doctor, even when an EpiPen has been used.

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Source: Ministry of Education

Ministry of Education


Common causes of allergic reactions in New Zealand:

  • Airborne triggers – dust mites, pollen, mould spores, allergens from cats and other furry or hairy animals, such as dogs, horses, rabbits, and guinea pigs
  • Food allergens – any type of food can trigger an allergic reaction. The most common food allergens aremilk (dairy), eggs, peanuts, tree-nuts, seeds such as sesame seeds, soy, wheat, shellfish, and fish.
  • Insect venom – bee and wasp stings
  • Other triggers – medications, latex in rubber products.

Source: Allergy New Zealand

Food allergy and food intolerance

A food allergy is an abnormal immune system response to the introduction of a food, an ordinarily harmless substance, into the body. In some people a food allergy is life threatening.

A food intolerance does not involve the immune system. It does not cause severe allergic reactions (known as anaphylaxis). Reactions can be immediate or delayed for up to 20 hours after a food is eaten. These reactions are not the same as allergies, but may include:

  • rashes and swelling of the skin
  • asthma and a stuffy or runny nose
  • irritable bowel symptoms, such as colic, bloating, and diarrhoea
  • migraines, headaches, lethargy, and irritability.

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