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Serum sickness describes a delayed immune system response, either to certain kinds of medications or to antiserum (given after a person has been bitten by a snake or to counter exposure to rabies, for example). Serum is the clear fluid part of blood. Serum sickness is similar to an allergy, in that the body mistakenly identifies a protein from the antiserum or medication as harmful and activates the immune system to fight it off. Today, the most common cause of serum sickness is the antibiotic penicillin. Serum sickness will usually develop within 7 - 10 days after initial exposure, but sometimes it can take as long as 3 weeks. If you are exposed again to the substance, serum sickness tends to develop faster (within 1 - 4 days), and only a very small amount of the substance may cause an intense response.
Signs and Symptoms
The first signs of serum sickness are redness and itching at the injection site. Other signs and symptoms include:
What Causes It?
Antigens, proteins the body mistakenly identifies as harmful, cause your immune system to produce antibodies. These antibodies bind with the antigens and build up on the layers of cells that line the heart, blood vessels, lymph vessels, and other body cavities. This causes inflammation and other symptoms of serum sickness.
Penicillin is the most common cause of serum sickness. Other causes include:
Who's Most At Risk?
You are more likely to suffer from serum sickness if:
What to Expect at Your Provider's Office
Your doctor will look for typical symptoms and ask if you have been recently exposed to any antiserum. Your doctor may order blood and urine tests.
Treatment for serum sickness is aimed at reducing symptoms. Your doctor may prescribe antihistamines or analgesics (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), along with topical medications to relieve itching or rash. In serious cases, your doctor may prescribe corticosteroids, such as prednisone. Normally, there is no need for hospitalization. Fever typically gets better within 48 - 72 hours of treatment.
Complementary and Alternative Therapies
If you suspect you have serum sickness, you should see a doctor immediately and receive conventional medical treatment. Some CAM therapies may support conventional treatment by helping to reduce inflammation and stabilize your immune system, but no scientific studies have been done on the effectiveness of CAM therapies for serum sickness. Although certain CAM therapies may help relieve symptoms, others could actually make them worse. Take any herb, supplement, or medication only under your doctor's supervision.
Nutrition and Supplements
The following nutrients may help support your immune system and reduce allergic reactions in general, though there is no scientific evidence that they will be effective for serum sickness and, as noted, some may make serum sickness worse. Talk to your doctor before taking any of these supplements.
Following these nutritional tips may help reduce risks and symptoms:
You may address nutritional deficiencies with the following supplements:
Herbs are generally available as standardized, dried extracts (pills, capsules, or tablets), teas, or tinctures/liquid extracts (alcohol extraction, unless otherwise noted). Mix liquid extracts with favorite beverage. Dose for teas is 1 - 2 heaping teaspoonfuls/cup water steeped for 10 - 15 minutes (roots need longer).
While few studies have examined the effectiveness of specific homeopathic remedies, professional homeopaths may recommend one or more of the following treatments for allergic reactions based on their knowledge and clinical experience. Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into account a person's constitutional type -- your physical, emotional, and intellectual makeup. An experienced homeopath assesses all of these factors when determining the most appropriate remedy for a particular individual.
Traditional Chinese Medicine and acupuncture can help lessen the body's tendency toward allergic hypersensitivity reactions.
Do not use massage to treat serum sickness as it may promote inflammation and lower blood pressure.
Serum sickness usually improves in 7 - 10 days, with full recovery in 2 - 4 weeks. However, it may lead to nervous system disorders and a life-threatening allergic reaction called anaphylaxis, so it is important to get medical treatment.
Health care providers should monitor seriously ill people for rare instances of myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) and peripheral neuritis (nerve inflammation).
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Review Date: 12/28/2012
Reviewed By: Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
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