Updated: Aug 22, 2019
First of all, if you are scared of the epi pen, know you aren't alone. It doesn't matter how old you are, because for many, the epi pen corresponds with a scary moment. Plus, if you are anything like me, needles are pretty darn scary. I definitely (still) have a GIANT fear of needles.
I hate getting shots, I hate getting IVs. And that's okay. I think it is important to understand how you feel about certain situations and let yourself accept those truths in order to manage it all. So much of my life with food allergies, I tried to avoid thinking about my allergies at all cost, unless necessary. Granted, I still worried a lot about my allergies growing up, but I attempted to push down those feelings out of my consciousness.
People around me didn't get why food allergies were a big deal, and so I was embarrassed to even admit that I struggled or that I was scared. But the truth is, there is truly no shame in being scared of epi pens. Or even allergies themselves. They're a big deal. If you are able to admit to yourself that they make you nervous, you'll be right on your way to managing that fear. Because ultimately, the epi pen is the best friend you will ever have if you have food allergies.
Still not convinced? Okay then, hear me out. I know you might hear that you should bring your epi pens wherever you go. If you are actively involved in the online food allergy community in some way, you have probably heard the phrase "always carry two" quite often. And whether or not you have heard this phrase, you should seriously listen.
Anaphylaxis is nothing like the minor, slightly annoying allergic reactions that can go away with some Benadryl. Because when the body goes into anaphylaxis, it has been flooded with such an overkill amount of chemicals that adrenaline is the only way to reverse the reaction. And epi pens are what are used to administer the adrenaline. Anaphylaxis can occur even without a history of severe reactions. And it hits really quick when it starts up building up steam.
Based on my experiences, it can sometimes take a few minutes for you to sense a reaction after eating the problematic food. And sometimes hours. Food Allergy Research and Eduction (FARE) says, "Anaphylaxis often begins within minutes after a person eats a problem food. Less commonly, symptoms may begin hours later."
So when I say it can hit fast when it builds up steam, I mean once you start noticing the reaction, even if it's hours later, it can progress rather quick. That's why adrenaline needs to be given in an injection, as injections allow for an almost immediate release of medications. Antihistamines will definitely not do that. Even if they could stop anaphylaxis (THEY CAN'T), antihistamines take at least 15 - 30 mins to start working, and that is just time you don't have when dealing with anaphylaxis.
I know that epi pens are not a fun concept for a lot of people. I'm not the biggest fan either. I have heard from parents who were concerned that they were hurting their infant children when they've had to administer the epi pen. I have heard people say they are just so scared of needles that they could never have the guts to use the epi pen.
But seriously, here's the thing. There are so many things in life that we really don't want to do. It's almost like we are all players in this game of life, and rule book specifically says you must do things that you won't like in order to continue to thrive. The epi pen is not the issue, the allergic reaction is. And if anaphylaxis were to hit, choosing to skip the epi pen will likely kill you.
So I ask, is it better to avoid a needle and be dead, or have to deal with a needle for ten seconds and be alive? Because sometimes, choosing to use the epi pen is really the line drawn between life and death. If you are a parent who has a young child with food allergies, and you worry about the use of epi pens, please remind yourself of this. Your child may not understand this yet, but one day they will.
If you are someone with allergies yourself, and this scares you more, know this is a truth you must face. It does not need to run your life, but having an epi pen can save it. And trust me, if everything is done properly, the feeling of relief from anaphylaxis that the epi pen can give you will change how to see it for the rest of your life.
I have had to use the epi pen multiple times before. I know the anaphylaxis routine by now. There's nothing casual or fun about the experience. But let me tell you, when your throat starts to close and your oxygen level drops dramatically, all you want to do is get better. It feels like you are drowning, and you aren't even underwater. It's the most scary and bizarre experience I have had.
My first case of anaphylaxis went much further than I should have let it. That could have been my last day, because I was scared of acknowledging the reaction and scared to use the epi pen. Lips were swelled, itchy throat, pale face, trouble breathing, throat closing, all that. I think I even started to low key hallucinate. If it weren't for my mom, I might not have survived. She knew as soon as she saw me that I needed the epi pen. As soon as I was injected, everything started to calm down.
When you are experiencing anaphylaxis, it can be quite scary. For those of us who grow up knowing it might be a thing for us one day, knowing that it is happening is maybe even a bit more terrifying. The thing you've grown up fearing and avoiding. So when you start experiencing anaphylaxis, especially if you experience it more than once, you start to appreciate the epi pen so much.
If you are a concerned parent, know that you are 100% helping your child when you give them the epi. They might not want to have an epi pen, and they might fight it before they are old enough to understand. But it really doesn't hurt that bad. The needle is small and like any shot, there is an initial awareness of the needle as it pierces the skin. But in my experience, it never stung or burned. And I think honestly, when having a bad enough reaction that you need an epi pen, you barely notice how it feels when it is injected in your leg. You are already in such a fight or flight mode that you focus more on what's going on reaction wise. You are uncomfortable and really, really scared. And when the epi comes around, it can make that so much better.
Sometimes you need more than one injection, and sometimes even that can not stop anaphlaxis. I was 12 at the time of my first anaphylactic reaction, and didn't know a lot about anaphylaxis. I didn't want to know about anaphylaxis. But now I know it's so important! And just as important, is talking about how an epi pen can save the day. Also, disclaimer, please never let your reaction get as bad as the one I described. Act quickly, and the outcome will always be better.
I am quite a small person, but even I have not had any serious side effects from an epi pen. In my experience, using the epi pen right away has given me immediate relief most of the time. It's like being hit with a new strength, which I guess in a way is exactly what happens. The adrenaline that is found in the epi pen stops everything from shutting down. It forces the body to start working faster, which may lead to some shaking.
When I have used the epi pen in the past, I have experienced being shaky after the use of the epi pen, but nothing horrible. Often times, the leg that I inject the epi pen with will be more shaky than the other parts of my body. Sometimes the shaking can be quite localized, while other times I am shaky all over. And honestly, that could also just be from the anxiety related to the allergic reaction.
I think that especially for little kids who might not understand the benefit the epi pen might have for them, it's important for parents or loved ones to know that the epi pen will save their life. If they do not like the epi pen, one day they will realize all you have done for them by injecting them with it during a reaction.
If you are the one with the allergies, know that the epi pen does not compare in the amount of fear you feel for it to anaphylaxis. Yes, the epi pen is a shot and sometimes that is very unpleasant but it is so very worth it. Before I had to use the epi pen, I think I was more scared of the actual pen than the idea of anaphylaxis hitting. Which now seems a bit silly. But if you feel this way don't stress. Like I said, it's okay to be scared. You just can't let the fear of a needle keep you from saving your life. So don't avoid bringing your epi pens where you go simply because you don't like thinking about the worse case scenario.
Having food allergies is like having a job. It's your job to keep yourself safe from your allergens, and in order to do that, you must be prepared. That's not to say that you should go around thinking you will die every few seconds. I just mean that it is so important to consider what could go wrong enough so that you can figure out an emergency plan and know how to follow through with it.
That should include carrying an epi pen and knowing how and when to use it. It's better to carry the epi pens around with you and not need them than to need them and not have them. In fact, it's quite common in anaphylaxis related deaths that the person was not able to administer the epi pen fast enough. Keeping it near by at all times helps lower that possibility of death.
Also, here's a bit of a fun fact on epi pens. Today, epi pens are capable of being injected through clothes. I have injected myself with an epi pen with jeans on and was still able to get full access to the medication in my body. There may be a bit of a blood stain on your clothing at the site of the injection, but I have never had too much of an issue getting that out of my clothes. However, I learned that epi pens were not always like this.
When visiting the allergist one time, one of the nurses told me a story of how epi pens used to be when she was younger. She said that she would have to drop her pants in order to inject herself. She said it was honestly so embarrassing and the idea gave her anxiety to go out in fear that she might need the epi pen while in a public place. Thank goodness that's changed! It will be interesting to see how the epi pen technology we have now will be different in a few years!
Since my first anaphylactic experience, I have put in so much time learning about this condition, and I manage it far better. I used to expect the epi pen to be some giant, long ass needle. But it's really not. And most of the time, the needle is not really seen until after the injection is given. I think that part of the fear associated with epi pens is misdirected fear for the reaction itself, but if the reaction is dealt with quickly, that will give you a better chance of being okay.
Remember that the epi pen is the only thing that can stop anaphylaxis, but it should not be used as the plan B of the allergy world. Don't purposely expose yourself to your allergens thinking that the epi pen will magically make things better. After using the epi pen it is important to call 911 (or whatever number is the emergency number in the country you live in).
At the hospital, doctors will need to monitor you for several hours, including watching out for renewed symptoms. If one epi pen is not enough, use a second epi pen, and remember to check for expiration dates! If an expired epi pen is all you have, however, then it is still a good idea to use the expired epi pen.
In closing, I want to add a few things. When you are struggling to survive from an exposure, epi pens are your answer. When you start to actually feel your body shut down, the epi pen is welcomed. And for those who don't believe they can give themselves the epi pen, I want to quote the most wise and wonderful Winnie the Pooh who says, "You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think."
We are all so much braver than we give ourselves credit for. Each day we manage a condition that impacts every meal, every kiss, and every celebration. On top of that we face hurtful stigma that makes us look like hypochondriacs. If you can manage that on a day to day basis, then I have no doubt in my mind that you can handle anaphylaxis and the epi pen.
I used to be terrified of the epi pen but now I see it as a huge source of comfort for me. Mine never leave my side (I keep them in my purse). I think through actual use of the epi pen, the fear for the epi pen starts to go away. Make sure to watch videos and use practice epi pens to practice how to use the epi pen. Knowledge is power, and brushing up on that can also inspire confidence. Epi pens are the tool that helps us take control of a scary and sometimes life threatening situation. Don't hesitate to use yours if you or your child start to experience anaphylaxis!