Serum sickness is defined as an allergic response to the foreign proteins in the blood. In most cases, it arises after being exposed to certain drugs or antiserums, typically after treatment for rabies, snake bites or tetanus.
The serum or plasma is the transparent or clear component of blood. It does not include any blood cells but packed with antibodies which is a form of protein.
Antiserum is taken from the serum of an animal or human which is immune to a specific poison or infection. This is given to an individual to assist with the formation of antibodies against an infection or component. It is generally administered as a passive form of immunization in which the body generates antibodies as a response to the introduced serum.
Serum sickness can manifest in any individual who is given a form of antiserum. In most cases, it is likely to occur among those who are injected with proteins to prevent rejection of an organ transplant as well as treating immune-related ailments.
What are the signs of serum sickness?
The indications of serum sickness might arise within 1-3 weeks after receiving an antiserum. It is not likely to manifest right after treatment with an antiserum.
The signs of the condition might vary based on the seriousness of the reaction and might include:
- Continuous high fever
- Generalized feeling of being sick
- Persistent joint pain and swelling
- Formation of skin rashes or hives
- Swollen and/or enlarged lymph nodes
- Abdominal pain along with nausea and diarrhea
Management of serum sickness
If an individual shows indications of serum sickness, it is vital to stop the administration of the serum if possible. The management is based on the seriousness of the symptoms. Nevertheless, the signs are expected to settle within 1-4 weeks.
The commonly used treatment options to manage a mild case include:
- Antihistamines and topical steroids to lessen the itchiness
- Corticosteroids are given for a brief span of time to reduce the inflammation
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are used to lower the fever and inflammation
For cases in which the symptoms are severe, the treatment includes:
- Plasma exchange might be an option to remove antibodies, immune complexes and proteins if the symptoms do not seem to resolve
- Hospitalization and careful monitoring might be required in case of anaphylaxis
- Large doses of intravenous corticosteroids might be used for a few days to relieve the symptoms right away in case of severe reactions.