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Armed for Allergies? Quick Action Saves Lives

Thursday, September 01, 2016 3:20 PM

EpiPen devices have been in the news lately, making the auto-injector of epinephrine practically a household name. Understanding life-threatening allergies, whether you know someone with one or not, can save lives.


Jennifer S. Kim, MD, Allergy & Immunology at NorthShore, says anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that affects the entire body (systemic). It can occur within minutes after a person is exposed to a substance (allergen or antigen). Common triggers of allergic reactions include foods such as peanut, milk, egg and shellfish, certain medications or insect stings from bees, hornets or wasps. Symptoms can range from mild to severe, and may include one or more of the following:

  • Mouth: swelling of tongue and/or lips, itchy or tingly mouth, blue-tinged lips.
  • Throat: trouble breathing, swallowing, or speaking; tightness, hoarseness.
  • Lungs: repetitive cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, chest tightness.
  • Heart: feeling faint, weak pulse, paleness, confusion, dizziness.
  • Skin: hives, itchy rash, sweating, flushing, swelling.
  • Gut: vomiting, diarrhea, crampy pain.
  • Sense of impending doom, loss of consciousness.

Dr. Kim answers frequently asked questions on when to use an EpiPen or household medication:

How do you know when to use an EpiPen?
Self-injectable epinephrine can be used for any of the symptoms described above, particularly for tongue swelling, throat, lung, heart and gut symptoms.

How do you use an EpiPen?
Great question! It should go in the middle of the thigh, slightly to the side. So not right on top and not on the side – in between. It should go in the big thigh muscle. We recommend NOT swinging but rather put the device at the intended site and push until you hear a click. Hold for 3 seconds. There are reports of lacerations – some requiring stitches or getting infected – with the swinging technique or if the child is moving. The leg should be held steady prior to administration.

When is medication, such as Benadryl, sufficient?
Oral antihistamines will NOT treat throat, lung or heart symptoms (see above.) Thus, they cannot stop a potentially life-threatening reaction involving respirator or cardiovascular symptoms. It will not reverse coughing or wheezing nor will it increase blood pressure. Depending on oral antihistamines exclusively for allergic reactions is dangerous and risky.

What should be done if someone is experiencing throat symptoms but an EpiPen is not available?
For itching, treat with an oral antihistamine and for changes in voice (hoarseness), tightness, difficulty talking or swallowing, call 911.

 How do you prepare and arm yourself when living with food allergies?