First Aid: Allergic Reactions

Limited Reaction

A limited (localized) reaction affects only the area of contact. Some reactions may not show up for days. Others can occur almost immediately.

Step 1

Stop the Source

  • If the person has been stung, scrape the stinger away with the edge of a credit card or the dull edge of a knife. DON’T use fingers or tweezers to remove a stinger. If pinched, the stinger may empty its venom into the skin.

  • If the reaction is caused by eating a specific food or taking a medication, the victim should not eat or take the substance again.

Step 2

Treat Skin Irritation

  • Wash insect bites with soap and water.

  • Remove and wash in hot water all clothing that may have plant oils (or any other substance that has caused a reaction) on them. Shower with plenty of soap to wash remaining plant oils (or other allergens) off the skin.

  • Control itching by making a thick paste of baking soda and water. Apply the paste directly to the skin.

Severe Reaction

A severe (systemic) reaction affects the entire body. In extreme cases, the airways from mouth to lungs may swell (anaphylaxis). The reaction may be immediate or develop over several hours.

Step 1

Calm the Person

  • Help the victim into a comfortable position. Prop up the head to aid breathing.

  • Tell the victim to remain still and limit talking.

  • If the person carries medication (epinephrine) to control anaphylaxis, help him or her use it.

  • Prevent any further contact with or exposure to allergen. 

Step 2

Monitor Breathing

  • Watch for signs of airway swelling such as wheezing or swollen lips. With an extreme reaction, the victim may have trouble getting any breath.

  • Perform rescue breathing, if needed. In extreme cases, you may not be able to get air into the lungs.

Call 911 immediately if the victim has any of the following:

  • Trouble breathing

  • A history of airway swelling (anaphylaxis)

While you wait for help:

  1. Reassure the person.

  2. Treat for shock or provide rescue breathing or CPR, if needed.

An allergic reaction may become more serious over time. Seek medical help if any of the following is true:

  • A rash or hives covers the face, genitals, or most of the body.

  • An entire body part, such as an arm or leg, swells.

  • The tongue or lips begin to swell.


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