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Anaphylaxis is a rapidly progressing, life-threatening allergic reaction. Anaphylaxis is a type of allergic reaction, in which the immune system responds to otherwise harmless substances from the environment. Unlike other allergic reactions, however, anaphylaxis can kill. Reaction may begin within minutes or even seconds of exposure, and rapidly progress to cause airway constriction, skin and intestinal irritation, and altered heart rhythms. In severe cases, it can result in complete airway obstruction, shock, and death. Like the majority of other allergic reactions, anaphylaxis is caused by the release of histamine and other chemicals from mast cells. Mast cells are a type of white blood cell and they are found in large numbers in the tissues that regulate exchange with the environment: the airways, digestive system, and skin. On their surfaces, mast cells display antibodies called IgE (immunoglobulin type E). These antibodies are designed to detect environmental substances to which the immune system is sensitive. Substances from a genuinely threatening source, such as bacteria or viruses, are called antigens. A substance that most people tolerate well, but to which others have an allergic response, is called an allergen. When IgE antibodies bind with allergens, they cause the mast cell to release histamine and other chemicals, which spill out onto neighboring cells. The interaction of these chemicals with receptors on the surface of blood vessels causes the vessels to leak fluid into surrounding tissues, causing fluid accumulation, redness, and swelling. On the smooth muscle cells of the airways and digestive system, they cause constriction. On nerve endings, they increase sensitivity and cause itching.

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