HomeThe feeling of an allergic reaction

The feeling of an allergic reaction

August 6, 2020

Two auto-injectors for anaphylaxis on a desk.

A few years ago, I had the unpleasant experience of developing new and unexpected allergies and was not able to get tested for a month. Unfortunately, not knowing what my new allergens were led to several allergic reactions. I have now used an EpiPen® on myself over 16 times, and my allergist most recently gave me an Allerject® in office the day we determined that allergy shots were not effective anymore.

As a result, I think I can safely say that I have an excellent understanding of what epinephrine auto-injectors feel like. It’s a common question on Facebook allergy forums, so I’ll summarize my usual answers for you here:

1) They really don’t hurt. 

I was terrified because everyone who teaches how to use an epinephrine auto-injector explains how the needle can go through clothes, so I thought that it was a big, giant needle. It’s not. It’s long, but is also super thin and probably better than the best vaccine you’ve ever had. It’s also much better than the blood pressure cuff in my local hospital which has a habit of inflating while I’m trying to text. Pro-tip: Never text while a blood pressure cuff is inflating. It hurts and throws off the results enough to immediately re-inflate again.

2) They really do work. 

For me, it’s like someone flipping a switch. Almost every time, 20 seconds after injection all of my symptoms are gone. Suddenly I can think so clearly again that I am able to remind myself that I wasn’t imagining things, that I did the right thing taking my epineprine, and casting aside all doubt that I was wasting my time or the time of others by going into the hospital.

3) The side effects. 

Fairly quickly after the relief of the epinephrine, I’m hit with the side-effects. Have you ever taken a puffer after an asthma attack? They make me shaky and I feel a bit like someone pushed me to the ground. Epinephrine makes me shake in waves. Heat helps, so I often try to bring a change of dry socks and my own fuzzy blanket to the hospital, but you can also ask for a hot blanket if you feel cold. 

4) A short time later…

About 10-30 minutes later, the epinephrine wears off and sometimes symptoms return. This is why it’s so important to have more than one epinephrine auto-injector on you at all times just in case it might take longer than that for an ambulance to arrive. For me, it’s usually 1-2 hours after that when I will occasionally have a biphasic reaction, and some of the original symptoms come back. This is why it’s so important to go to a hospital because they will have the proper protocols and equipment available to save your life.

5) Afterwards. 

I’ve learned to know that it’s not paranoia when you have a legitimate reason to be fearful. Anxiety around food is my defence mechanism. The trick is to find ways to mitigate and manage the risk. 

For me, I like to be as prepared as possible… and because I tend to stop thinking clearly while experiencing an anaphylactic reaction, I have a checklist of symptoms. I take pictures of my reaction as it progresses so I can reference. I check my vitals, and then I distract myself as much as possible. Later on, it’s super helpful to remember the evidence of what actually happened, and when. 

Additionally, make sure you practice using your epinephrine auto-injector. There are plastic trainers usually free to order online from the different epinephrine auto-injector companies. Getting that muscle memory is really key. Tell yourself this is safe. Say it out loud. Say it until your brain remembers it.

6) The mental health aspect.

Consider seeking out a psychologist or counsellor to talk about this traumatic experience. Be picky. They need to have an understanding of the difference between anaphylaxis and panic attacks. For me, I sought professional help because I’ve had PTSD in the past (broke my back). I was SO anxious with the allergies (we had no idea what was going on) and I wanted to a) rule out an anxiety disorder affecting me and b) learn techniques to help manage my inability to think straight during an anaphylactic reaction. My sessions were incredibly helpful. Meanwhile, look up box breathing and how to ground yourself. Remember what is true: the medication works, epinephrine is safe, the epinephrine auto-injectors don’t hurt, and your doctor has prescribed it to be used when you’re experiencing an anaphylactic reaction. 

– Janice H. 

Tags: ,