Three Steps to Help Prepare for a Food Allergy Emergency
1. Get a proper diagnosis and prescription for epinephrine.
The first step for preparing for an allergic reaction is getting an actual diagnosis from a healthcare provider. Already have one? Well done. This critical first step makes you more prepared than almost half of adult patients with convincing food allergy symptoms.1
All patients who have been diagnosed with a food allergy should have an emergency care plan, or ECP. This written document from your healthcare provider includes a diagnosis of your food allergy, the symptoms you might exhibit, and most importantly, a plan for how you should respond, including when to use prescribed life-saving epinephrine. It also includes important details such as contact numbers for close family and friends. Family members, friends, and caregivers should all be well-versed in your ECP.
2. Carry epinephrine, and don’t be afraid to use it.
Epinephrine is your primary tool for navigating through an allergic reaction successfully.3 It comes in the form of an autoinjector, and it works by countering the symptoms associated with anaphylaxis. It can be used either by the person experiencing the allergic reaction or by anyone witnessing the reaction. Epinephrine is injected into the outer thigh of the person experiencing the allergic reaction (through a person’s clothes). It works within minutes to open a person’s airways, buying the person extra time to get to a hospital.
Anaphylaxis can escalate very quickly, so it’s important to familiarize yourself with the symptoms and use epinephrine when appropriate.
A recent study found that only about a quarter of adults with convincing food allergies had an active epinephrine prescription.1 These numbers are stunning and dangerous, since without epinephrine people are more at risk for a fatal allergic reaction.3 Many people don’t realize that it is impossible to predict how severe a food reaction might be based on the severity of a previous reaction. Think of it this way: Just because you’ve only reacted with hives before, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your next reaction will be as mild. That’s why most healthcare providers stress the importance of patients having their epinephrine autoinjectors on them, or nearby, at all times.
There are many different brands of epinephrine autoinjectors, and all operate a bit differently, so it’s important to familiarize yourself with how to use the autoinjector prescribed to you. This page breaks down the different epinephrine auto-injectors on the market and provides links to learn more about how to use them.
It’s helpful to practice using an epinephrine autoinjector with family and friends. Some manufacturers include a training device—a model lacking the needle and epinephrine—with your prescription for this purpose. If you don’t have a practice device, or just want to practice with the real thing, you can also use an expired epinephrine autoinjector on an orange.
It’s common to feel nervous about using an epinephrine autoinjector. Many people don’t feel comfortable with needles. Some people worry about epinephrine itself being dangerous. Others would just rather manage their allergic reaction at home rather than having to go to the emergency room. It’s important to know that experts agree that the downfalls of not using epinephrine are much greater than using it too soon.4 If you have ever feared using epinephrine, we recommend listening to this episode of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology podcast. Dr. Lieberman and Dr. Stukus talk about how to recognize the signs of anaphylaxis, why patients shouldn’t be afraid to use their epinephrine autoinjectors, and even talk about what happened when they injected themselves with epinephrine.
We understand that anaphylaxis—especially when it is severe—can be scary. Epinephrine is a great tool for combatting an allergic reaction, so it’s important to be prepared to use it, and use it quickly. One phrase we like to remember is “Epi first, Epi fast.” Basically, that phrase means: Go with your gut, use your epinephrine device quickly, and then get yourself to a local emergency room. Fast action can save your life.
3. Know how to help prevent an allergic reaction.
The best way to be prepared for an allergic reaction is to prevent one from happening in the first place. Mistakes do happen, but the more knowledgeable you are, the more likely a food-allergy emergency can be avoided.
- Make sure that you and all your family members are comfortable reading labels and preparing safe foods. If you are newly diagnosed and the idea of grocery shopping and preparing food overwhelms you, you’re not alone. Millions of Americans like you are facing the same challenges and are sharing tips and tricks to make the experience easier.
- Build your village. Whether it’s the parent that sees someone trying to give your child peanuts and jumps in to grab them, or the coworker that refrains from heating up shellfish in your office because she knows you have a shellfish allergy, you need these allergy allies. A recent survey found that when teens with food allergies have supportive friends, they are less likely to find themselves in risky scenarios such as eating at restaurants that might be unsafe for them.5
- Be your own advocate. It is important for people with food allergies to discuss their allergies with people they live with or who may be preparing food for them. It’s OK to ask for special accommodations to keep yourself safe.
Being prepared is one of the best things people with food allergies can do to minimize risk. Once you’ve checked off these three preparation steps, you can be a lot more confident that you are managing your allergy effectively, and in the long run, that can help ease food allergy anxiety.