First Aid Skills Save Lives: Allergic Reactions

St John Ambulance, the nation’s leading first aid charity has teamed up with All About Family to bring you some simple, but life saving, first aid tips – this time: severe allergic reaction.


An allergy is the body’s unexpected reaction to something it has come into contact with. Something that triggers an allergic reaction is called an allergen.


One of the most common allergens is plant pollen, which often causes hay fever. Other allergens include: animal hair, insect stings, specific drugs and foods ‒ especially penicillin, shellfish and nuts.

Allergies develop when the body has an abnormal immune response to a normally harmless substance and mistakes it for a threat, like an infection, and tries to fight it off.


A severe allergic reaction can develop within just a few seconds of the person coming into contact with the allergen. It can affect the whole body and, if not treated quickly enough, can potentially lead to death. This is called Anaphylaxis or Anaphylactic shock.


These are the six key things to look for:

  • In mild allergy there may be blotchy, itchy skin
  • Itchy red eyes or nose
  • In severe allergy there may be wheezing or difficulty breathing (they may complain that their chest ‘feels tight’)
  • There may be swelling of the hands, feet or face, but the tongue and throat may also swell
  • Anxiety
  • Signs of shock

If you think someone is having a severe allergic reaction, they may have some of the symptoms mentioned above or they may tell you they’ve been exposed to something they are allergic to. You need to get them emergency help as fast as you can (even if their symptoms are mild but they have been exposed to something to which they are severely allergic).

Dial 999 or 112 straight away. Tell the emergency operator that you think someone is having a severe allergic reaction and give them any information you have about what may have triggered it (e.g. an insect sting, or certain food, like peanuts).


If the person knows what they have a severe reaction to, they may have medication with them – an auto-injector (for example Epipen®, JEXT® or Emerade®). This is a pre-filled injection device, containing adrenaline/epinephrine, which when injected, can help reduce the body’s allergic reaction. Check if they have one, and if they do, help them to use it or if you have training, give it. Remember, they still need medical help even if they have used their auto-injector.


While waiting for help to arrive, help them into a comfortable sitting position, leaning forward slightly, to help their breathing.


For those looking for quick, easily accessible first aid information, the St John Ambulance app is available free on smartphones and the website ( offers demo videos, an interactive game, and lots of free advice. For more information about first aid courses please call 0844 770 4800



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