Serum Sickness

By Medically reviewed by Hello Doktor Medical Panel


What is Serum Sickness?

Serum sickness is an immune response that’s similar to an allergic reaction. It happens when antigens (substances that trigger an immune response) in certain medications and antiserums cause your immune system to react.

The antigens involved in serum sickness are proteins from nonhuman sources — usually animals. Your body mistakes these proteins as being harmful, triggering an immune response to destroy them. When the immune system interacts with these proteins, immune complexes (antigen and antibody combinations) form. These complexes can clump together and settle in small blood vessels, which then leads to symptoms.

How common is Serum Sickness?

Please discuss with your doctor for further information.


What are the symptoms of Serum Sickness?

Serum sickness usually develops within several days to three weeks of being exposed to the medication or antiserum, but it may develop as quickly as one hour after exposure in some people.

The three main symptoms of serum sickness include fever, rash, and painful swollen joints.

Other possible symptoms of serum sickness include:

  • Hives
  • Muscle pain and weakness
  • Soft tissue swelling
  • Flushed skin
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach cramping
  • Itching
  • Headache
  • Facial swelling
  • Blurred vision
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swollen lymph nodes

There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.

When should I see my doctor?

If you have any signs or symptoms listed above or have any questions, please consult with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor what is best for your situation.


What causes Serum Sickness?

Plasma is the clear fluid portion of blood. It does not contain blood cells. But it does contain many proteins, including antibodies, which are formed as part of the immune response to protect against infection.

Antiserum is produced from the plasma of a person or animal that has immunity against an infection or poisonous substance. Antiserum may be used to protect a person who has been exposed to a germ or toxin. For example, you may receive a certain type of antiserum injection:

If you have been exposed to tetanus or rabies and have never been vaccinated against these germs. This is called passive immunization.

If you have been bitten by a snake that produces a dangerous toxin.

During serum sickness, the immune system falsely identifies a protein in antiserum as a harmful substance (antigen). The result is an immune system response that attacks the antiserum. Immune system elements and the antiserum combine to form immune complexes, which cause the symptoms of serum sickness.

Certain medicines (such as penicillin, cefaclor, and sulfa) can cause a similar reaction.

Injected proteins such as antithymocyte globulin (used to treat organ transplant rejection) and rituximab (used to treat immune disorders and cancers) can cause serum sickness reactions.

Blood products may also cause serum sickness.

Risk factors

What increases my risk for Serum Sickness?

There are many risk factors for Serum Sickness, such as:

  • Being injected with an animal-derived serum
  • Being injected with large amounts of antiserum (such as in the case of serious snake bites)
  • Being treated with thymoglobulin serum after an organ transplant
  • A history of serum sickness after exposure to serum or antiserum
  • A history of frequent exposure to horses or rabbits
  • In rare cases, a bee sting or a wasp sting

Diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is Serum Sickness diagnosed?

To diagnose serum sickness, your doctor will want to know what symptoms you have and when they started. Make sure to tell them about any new medications you’ve been taking.

If you have a rash, they may start by doing a biopsy, which involves taking a small tissue sample from the rash and looking at it under a microscope. This helps them rule out other possible causes of your rash.

They might also collect a blood sample and a urine sample to test for signs of an underlying condition that might be causing your symptoms.

How is Serum Sickness treated?

Serum sickness usually resolves on its own once you are no longer exposed to the medication that caused the reaction.

In the meantime, your doctor might suggest some of these medications to help you manage your symptoms:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen, to reduce fever, joint pain, and inflammation
  • Antihistamines to help reduce rash and itching
  • Steroids, such as prednisone, for more severe symptoms

In rare cases, you may need a plasma exchange.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage Serum Sickness?

The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with Serum Sickness:

Certain diet changes may help in boosting the immune system to reduce the severity of allergic reactions, but it is important to work with a nutritionist or a healthcare provider to make the best decisions.

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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Review Date: August 24, 2018 | Last Modified: September 13, 2019

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