First Aid for an Allergic Reaction

Allergic reactions can range from mild to life threatening. Knowing how to spot the signs of a severe allergic reaction and administer the correct first aid could save someone’s life. This article explains what to do if someone goes into anaphylactic shock and how to use an EpiPen in Australia.

What is an allergic reaction?

An allergic reaction is when your body’s immune system attacks a foreign invader that is usually harmless. For example, food items, pet dander or pollen.

An allergic reaction can be caused by eating, inhaling or coming into contact with an allergen. Allergic reactions can be mild or severe and even life threatening.

It’s not completely clear why some people experience allergic reactions, but they do tend to run in families. If you have a close family member with an allergy, you are more likely to have an allergy too.

What are the symptoms of an allergic reaction?

Allergy symptoms can vary greatly depending on the cause and severity of the reaction.

Mild to moderate allergic reactions are often accompanied by symptoms like:

  • Swollen face
  • Rashes, hives and welts
  • Tingling sensation
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting

The symptoms of a severe allergic reaction include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty talking
  • Swollen tongue
  • Tight throat
  • Wheezing or coughing
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Loss of consciousness

Small children experiencing a severe allergic reaction often go pale and floppy.

What is anaphylaxis?

Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that can be life threatening. People can have an anaphylactic reaction to a range of different allergens, but common ones include:

  • Peanuts or tree nuts
  • Milk
  • Shellfish
  • Insect stings
  • Certain medications
  • Latex

Anaphylaxis can occur within seconds of being exposed to an allergen. The immune system produces a rush of chemicals that can cause your body to go into shock. You may experience difficulty breathing, abdominal pain or loss of consciousness.

What to do if someone goes into anaphylactic shock

A severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) is a medical emergency and can be life threatening. If someone is showing the signs of anaphylaxis, you should call 000 for emergency medical help straight away.

The steps below explain how to provide first aid for anaphylaxis:

  1. Call 000 immediately.
  2. Lay the person down or sit them down if they are having trouble breathing.
  3. Administer an epinephrine auto-injector (EpiPen) in the person’s outer mid thigh. If there is no EpiPen available, follow instructions from the ambulance officer.
  4. Try to keep the person calm.
  5. Roll them onto their side if they are vomiting and make sure their airways stay clear.
  6. Make sure their clothes are not too tight, especially around their torso and airways.
  7. Start cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and life saving breaths if the person is unconscious.

If the person has asthma and a known allergy, you should administer the EpiPen first and then an asthma inhaler reliever if they are experiencing anaphylactic symptoms.

Also Read: What to do if a child goes into anaphylactic shock.

What is an EpiPen?

An EpiPen is a type of epinephrine auto-injector which contains a single dose of epinephrine (also known as adrenaline).

Epinephrine helps reverse the symptoms of anaphylaxis by:

  • Relaxing the airway muscles
  • Increasing heart rate and blood supply
  • Narrowing blood vessels to increase blood pressure
  • Relaxing the stomach and intestine muscles

People with severe allergies should carry an EpiPen on them at all times in case of emergency. Schools and workplaces should also include an EpiPen in their first aid kit if someone on site is known to have an allergy.

EpiPens can be used for adults and children over 20kg. For children who weigh between 7.5 to 20 kg, the EpiPen Jr can be used. Children with severe allergies should know how to administer an EpiPen and carry an action plan on them at all times.

How to use an EpiPen

EpiPens are designed for easy use and can be administered by anyone, not just health professionals. Both visual and written instructions on how to use it properly are printed on the body of the EpiPen.

Follow these instructions to administer an EpiPen:

  1. Hold the EpiPen in your fist with the blue cap pointing upwards (same side as your thumb).
  2. Remove the blue safety cap.
  3. Hold the person’s leg still.
  4. Place the orange end against their outer mid thigh. This can be on their skin or over clothing.
  5. Push down hard until you hear a click.
  6. Hold in place for 3 seconds and then release.
  7. Record the time so you can give this information to the ambulance officers.

Ensure your EpiPen is up to date

Like all types of medication, EpiPens have a use by date. You should buy EpiPen replacements when current items are expired, damaged or cloudy.

Care should be taken when storing an EpiPen to ensure it is ready and reliable to use in case of an emergency.

Best practices for storing an EpiPen include:

  • Keep it out of direct sunlight
  • Use an insulated EpiPen case to prevent overheating
  • Carry it on you when out
  • Never leave it in the car
  • Do not refrigerate or freeze

EpiPens should regularly be inspected through the viewing window and be replaced if:

  • Damaged
  • Leaking
  • Cloudy or has visible solid particles

Proper storage and maintenance of EpiPen auto-injectors is crucial to ensure that it is reliable and ready to use in case of an emergency. First aid providers and people responsible for first aid supplies at schools, workplaces and health facilities should ensure a working EpiPen is on hand at all times.