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Sharp Health News

What you need to know if your child has food allergies

Nov. 25, 2015

Food allergies and epinephrine

Picture this: your child is enjoying a meal or snack when they feel their throat tighten and begin gasping for air. They aren’t choking, but something is seriously wrong. You check the label and discover that it includes a food to which your child has a known allergy. Would you know what to do?

An estimated 5.9 million children in the United States have a food allergy, triggering the body to produce an immune response to defend against the foreign substance. As the prevalence of food and other allergies increases in children, so does the risk of anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction.

The symptoms of anaphylaxis include hives, itching, nausea and throat constriction. In the worst cases, it can lead to shock — a dramatic decrease in blood flow to the body’s cells that can be life-threatening if not treated immediately.

Epinephrine is extremely capable at treating these symptoms, but it needs to be administered quickly in order to avoid deadly outcomes for children with severe allergies. Families with children who have known allergies to food or other substances are strongly encouraged to carry an epinephrine auto-injector with them at all times.

Dr. John Pauls, an allergy and immunology specialist with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group, says, “Using epinephrine auto-injectors in an emergency when children show symptoms of anaphylaxis is not only safe and appropriate, but absolutely necessary.”

Common mistakes with life-threatening consequences

Despite the importance of this medication, recent studies have reported that a high percentage of patients prescribed epinephrine auto-injectors are unprepared to use the device correctly. Researchers at the University of Texas recently found that only 16 percent of patients were able to demonstrate all of the steps needed to inject the medication properly.

According to a 2014 study published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, common mistakes include:

  • Holding the device in place for fewer than 10 seconds after injection (check the package insert for your injectable epinephrine device as some now require less time to be held in place)
  • Placing the wrong end of the injector onto the thigh
  • Pushing too lightly for the device to release the medicine

Dr. Pauls stresses the importance of parents knowing how to use their epinephrine auto-injector. Parents — as well as children — should be very familiar with how it is used. There are several types of epinephrine auto-injector that vary slightly in how they are used, but the directions are generally the same.

To use an auto-injector:

  • Form a fist around the auto-injector with the black tip pointing down.
  • Pull off the safety cap or caps.
  • Place the injectable tip against the fleshy portion of the outer thigh. This can be done over clothes.
  • With a quick motion, push the auto-injector firmly against the thigh and hold for the time defined by your prescribed injectable device.
  • Remove the auto-injector from the thigh.
  • Call 911.

Using the proper technique will significantly reduce the chance of incorrect injections and reduce injury. It’s important for parents to also check the expiration date of all auto-injectors — including at their child’s school or day care provider — to be sure they are up-to-date.

“The most common mistake that parents make when faced with a severe allergic reaction is deciding not to use an auto-injector or delaying its use because it’s not readily available,” says Dr. Pauls. “Knowing the symptoms, having a plan in place and acting quickly can be lifesaving.”

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