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Who Needs to Carry an EpiPen

Posted 9/15/2016 by UHBlog

If your child suffers from a food allergy, talk to us about what actions to take to prevent a life-threatening situation.

Who Needs to Carry an EpiPen

In recent years, food allergies have soared, with the number of children suffering from food allergies more than doubling over the last 15 years. In fact, an estimated 6 to 10 percent of kids have food allergies, which can lead to life-threatening allergic reactions, or anaphylaxis.

Kids with food allergies need to carry an EpiPen, and older kids should know how to use it to keep themselves safe, says pediatric allergy/immunology specialist Leigh Kerns, MD.

“EpiPens contain a medication called epinephrine – also known as adrenaline – and are used to treat anaphylaxis,” Dr. Kerns says. “The epinephrine eases breathing by relaxing lung muscles. It stops swelling in the throat and face. It increases low blood pressure by tightening the blood vessels and increases the heart rate.”

Food allergies are the leading cause of epinephrine use outside of the hospital. The most common triggers are:

  • Peanuts
  • Milk
  • Soy
  • Egg
  • Wheat
  • Tree nuts, such as walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, cashews, pistachios and Brazil nuts
  • Fish and shellfish

Other things can also trigger an allergic reaction and require an EpiPen use, Dr. Kerns says. For instance, venom allergies from bee, wasps or other stinging insects may cause symptoms. Medications such as penicillin are another trigger for some children.

“Adults usually give the injection to children to make sure they are getting a life-saving dose,” says Dr. Kerns. “Depending on their level of maturity, many high school kids should be able to self-administer the medication. Even some of the more mature middle school children can use it correctly.”

Teens are at the highest risk for fatal or near fatal reactions. Plus, they spend more time outside of the home. They’re also more likely to leave their EpiPen at home because they don’t want other teens to know they have a food allergy or are on a special diet.

“At this age, the doctor will often stress to the child the importance of staying with the program and keeping the pen with them,” Dr. Kerns says. “The parents should reinforce this often so the child understands the importance and why it's necessary.”

The directions for use are clearly written on the side of the package. This can be helpful since the device is almost always used in high-stress situations.

“Every EpiPen system comes with a training device with no needle or medication,” she says. “Parents should practice to make sure they know how to use it when needed. It can also be used to train teachers, coaches, bus drivers and others who will be around the child.”

According to Dr. Kerns, the symptoms of an allergic reaction include:

  • Coughing, wheezing and/or difficulty breathing
  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Passing out
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Vomiting

If your child has an allergic reaction and uses the EpiPen, you still should take them to an emergency room for continued treatment and evaluation once their symptoms ease. There’s a chance the symptoms may return when the medication wears off, Dr. Kerns says.

Dr. Kerns' other tips include:

  • Contact your child's school and complete the proper forms so the school can administer the EpiPen if needed.
  • Keep a set of EpiPen devices at the school so that one can be used for a reaction if needed.
  • Ask if the school has unlabeled EpiPens available so that school staff can administer the medicine even if there isn’t one available with your child's name on it.

Leigh Kerns, MD is a pediatric allergy/immunology specialist at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital. You can request an appointment with Dr. Kerns or any other doctor online.

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