Serum Sickness

Diseases list > Serum Sickness

Serum sickness is an immune system reaction to proteins found in antiserum derived from an animal source. The antiserum is the liquid part of the blood where antibodies are found. These components help your body protect itself against infectious or poisonous substances, and are typically used as antitoxins or antivenom.

This condition is frequently experienced by individuals older than 15 years old. This is because of the maturity brought about by age results in an increased need for antitoxins in larger volumes in case of emergencies. However, it is then inevitable that a person will need antitoxins if ever he or she is exposed to various harmful bacteria and microorganisms. Good examples of antiserum typically derived animals like horses include rabies and tetanus serum, which can consequently cause serum sickness.

Serum sickness

Medications like penicillin, cefaclor and sulfa are known to have caused similar adverse reactions in humans. Injected proteins such as antithymocyte globulin (for treating organ transplant rejection), rituximab (for immune disorders and cancers) and blood products may also set off the sickness. In about a week or three weeks after the first exposure to a particular medication, the sickness can develop. Note that this is not similar to drug allergies, as the allergic reaction may have been brought about by the other ingredients in other medicines.

Symptoms of serum sickness usually include the following – fever, a general ill feeling, itching, pain in the joints, rashes and swollen lymph nodes. These symptoms can last for about a week or two before they go away entirely.

In the US, about 2-5% and 16% of tetanus antitoxin and rabies antitoxin users, respectively, were afflicted with the sickness. Today, there is a noticeable decrease in the incidence of the disease because of the shift to using human serum rather than serum derived from other sources. IN addition to this, there has also been a significant increase in public health vaccination programs. On the other hand, many people are still suffering from serum sickness. There are several methods that can be used to treat serum sickness. However, you should always remember to consult a doctor prior taking any treatment or preventative measures. Here are some of the most commonly prescribed treatments:

  1. Corticosteroid creams and ointments – the discomfort from itching and rashes can be relieved via topical application of this medication. Oral variants of corticosteroid, like prednisone, are usually prescribed for severe cases.
  2. Antihistamines – these can also help ease the itchiness felt by a patient. Antihistamines are also known to be capable of decreasing the frequency of serum sickness. The prophylactic type works by negating the adverse effects on vascular permeability created by vasoactive amines.  Permeability pertains to the action of the blood vessel walls to allow small molecules or even whole cells (lymphocytes) to pass to and fro.
  3. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs – these are more popularly known as joint pain relievers. They are commonly used in the form of ibuprofen or naproxen tablets or capsules.

While taking or using these medications, the serum found to be causing the problem should be abruptly stopped. The sickness-causing medications and antiserum should not be used again in the future. Otherwise, the risk of acquiring complications is ultimately likely to increase. Some complications include anaphylactic shock, inflammation of the blood vessels and swelling of the face, arms, and legs.

By learning about the details of this condition, you can now  distinguish whether you are experiencing a simple allergic reaction or serum sickness. As a result, it would be easier for you and your doctor to find the best method to treat your condition.


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