Let’s look at the EpiPen™. It can save lives in the case of very severe allergies. In such situations, the immune system triggers symptoms so severe that they put the life of the allergy sufferer at risk. An example of this is swelling in the throat that prevents air from reaching the lungs. That’s when an EpiPen™ is really useful.
However, knowing just when to use the EpiPen™ is never easy. One mother recently suggested to another to give an EpiPen™ shot to a four-month-old baby who suffered from diaper rash and upset stomach after drinking milk. Her reasoning was that if the allergy affected two or more organs, that was sufficient reason to use the EpiPen™.
That reasoning is wrong, and maybe even dangerous. Here is how the EpiPen™ works.
Your body’s central nervous system has two ways of operating: parasympathetic mode and sympathetic mode.
Parasympathetic mode prevails when you are relaxed, when you go about your normal life and feel safe, quiet, and calm. You can go deeper into parasympathetic through meditation, yoga, prayer, reading a good book, or engaging in an interesting hobby. When your body is operating in this mode, it directs its energy to your digestive system, to your immune system, to your urinary system, and to your reproductive system. (The latter may explain why women under stress may have trouble becoming pregnant… until they go on vacation.)
Sympathetic mode occurs when you are under stress, whether you’re being chased by a lion or simply facing an unreasonable work deadline. This is also called the “fight or flight response.” In sympathetic mode, your body directs its energy to your muscles, your nervous system, and your circulatory system: the parts of your body required to save your life from outside danger in case of an emergency. Your adrenal glands produce adrenaline and cortisol to give those organs more energy so they can help save your life.
The immune system is there to protect you from internal dangers like viruses, bacteria, fungal infections, and allergens. It might seem strange but nasty symptoms from allergic reactions are a result of your body’s attempt to protect you. If your body considers dairy products, cats, or pollen as threats to your safety, it will fire up the immune system to protect you. Problems arise when the response from your immune system is so strong that it endangers your life. Anaphylactic shock is one example of this.
Your body can be in either parasympathetic or sympathetic mode. You don’t need your immune system to save your life in short periods of extreme danger. For example, when you’re being chased by a lion, your body has higher priorities for its energy than fighting off a cold virus or combatting a dairy allergy.
You are generally in parasympathetic mode when you have an allergic reaction. Using the EpiPen rapidly shifts you into sympathetic mode where the immune system gets shut off. This makes the allergy symptoms disappear rapidly and saves your life.
However, the EpiPen™ is hard on the body because it injects a high dose of adrenalin into your bloodstream. This adrenalin surge triggers the muscles, heart, and nervous system into emergency overdrive to fight or flee.
This is like pulling the fire alarm in a building: great in case of emergency but there is no need to use it when there is no fire. That is why the EpiPen™ is amazing when really needed in urgent situations. However, you should not use it in the case of mild allergic reactions like diaper rash or tummy ache.
EpiPen™ is a registered trademark of Mylan Inc. and used by Pfizer Canada under licence.