Parents.com: Half of kids who have allergic reactions don’t get epinephrine before visiting ER

A new study has found that more than half of kids who need epinephrine following an allergic reaction don't get it. Here's what parents should know.

By Melissa Willets

A new study out of the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology uncovers an alarming statistic: Approximately half of kids who need epinephrine following an allergic reaction don't get it before they seek emergency care. In fact, even children who were prescribed epinephrine for previous allergic reactions weren't getting the life-saving medication they needed right away in emergency situations.

According to the study's co-author, Dr. David Stukus from Nationwide Children's Hospital, anyone who suffers anaphylaxis—a severe allergic reaction characterized by any combination of symptoms including hives, swelling, nausea, vomiting, breathing problems, or wheezing—should get a dose of epinephrine ASAP. "If in doubt, give it," Dr. Stukus told Parents.com about administering an epinephrine auto-injector to a person suffering an allergic reaction.

How & When to Use an EpiPen

After looking at more than 400 kids who went to urgent care or the ER for anaphylaxis, researchers found that less than half had received epinephrine prior to their arrival. This is despite the fact that 67 percent had a prior prescription for an epinephrine auto-injector.

Interestingly, the study found kids were more likely to receive a dose of epinephrine if they had a reaction at school versus at home. Dr. Stukus told us that since students with food allergies are required to have a signed, written allergy treatment plan, school administrators are likewise required to follow those directives in the event of a reaction. But at home, emotions can come into the picture, understandably. As he notes, "It's a very stressful experience for parents." And it can be difficult to think through the necessary steps. "It's difficult to stick a needle in your child's leg," Dr. Stukus recognizes.

He stresses, however, that there is no downside to administering epinephrine, even when in doubt. But he also emphasizes that this research is by no means intended to guilt parents who may not have given their child the appropriate treatment. Instead, researchers hope to raise awareness that epinephrine is the only appropriate and effective treatment for anaphylaxis, and the sooner it's given, the better.

In fact, according to the study, kids who received epinephrine before they came to the ER were less likely to be treated with it there, and were more likely to go home than those who didn't get a dose pre-arrival.

The takeaway? Dr. Stukus told Science Daily, "It's vital to keep your epinephrine with you if you suffer from any sort of severe allergy. Anaphylaxis symptoms occur suddenly and can progress quickly. Always have a second dose with you and, when in doubt, administer it too. Anaphylaxis can be deadly if left untreated."

He also told Parents.com, "Being prepared is always the best policy." Dr. Stukus offers these additional tips for managing a food allergy:

  • Fully educate yourself about the allergy.
  • Practice administering an epinephrine auto-injector at every encounter with your child's pediatrician and allergist.
  • Role play what to do in an emergency with your child.

And in the event of an emergency, remember that step 1 is to administer the epinephrine. Step 2 is to call 911.

If you do not have an auto-injector with you for any reason, call 911 immediately and make sure paramedics have an epinephrine auto-injector on board their rig. Dr. Stukus strongly discourages parents from driving to the ER themselves if their child is suffering a reaction, especially if the hospital is far away. It is also never a good idea to go to a pharmacy and wait on line to fill a prescription. Again, call 911 and get help immediately.