Epinephrine vs. antihistamines

When thinking about what medications you might use if your child has an allergic reaction, it’s important to consider the severity of the symptoms. Your healthcare provider will be able to talk to you about how different treatment options might interact with your child’s specific allergy, but it’s also a good idea to be familiar with different types of treatments.

Antihistamines or decongestants might be used for a mild allergic reaction, but epinephrine is currently the only medication that will reverse anaphylaxis.


Anaphylaxis is a serious and potentially life-threatening allergic reaction. It can be triggered by food or environmental allergies. Most of the time, it occurs immediately after someone is exposed to an allergen, but it can also be delayed by a few minutes.

What happens is this: after exposure to an allergen, an allergic person’s immune system perceives a threat and starts releasing antibodies to fight it. These antibodies then release chemicals, including histamine, that cause the body to go into shock. It becomes difficult to breathe, the pulse weakens, and blood pressure drops. A person might also develop a rash or start vomiting. If anaphylaxis isn’t treated immediately with epinephrine, it can be deadly.


Just like it says in the name, epinephrine autoinjectors inject epinephrine into the blood. Epinephrine tightens the blood vessels and increases blood pressure. It also relaxes muscles in the lungs, increases the heart rate, and reduces hives and swelling.

If your child has an anaphylactic reaction, give them a shot of epinephrine immediately and call 911 or your local emergency line. It’s recommended that people with severe allergies carry an epinephrine autoinjector with them at all times.

It is, however, possible that an injector that’s carried around won’t work correctly. They’re supposed to be stored at room temperature, and if you bring your injector into an environment that’s too hot or cold, the injector might become defective. This means it can also be helpful to keep an extra in a cool, dry place inside the house.


Antihistamines cannot manage a severe allergic reaction, but they can treat mild symptoms like itchiness in the nose or eyes, a stuffy or runny nose, hives, rash, and minor swelling. They do this by blocking histamine, which is a chemical released by the immune system that causes symptoms. Depending on what your healthcare provider recommends, your child may need to take antihistamines daily, only when symptoms appear, or only before being exposed to an allergen. This medication should also be store at room temperature.

Most antihistamines are safe for children over 2 years old. If your child is younger, consult your healthcare provider about what medications will be safe. There are epinephrine autoinjectors made for children, but the recommended weight is usually around 33 pounds. If your child is smaller than that, talk to your healthcare provider about what the protocol should be if your child has an allergic reaction. It’s likely that they will still recommend that you use it, as anaphylaxis can be life-threatening.

  • “Treatment and managing reactions.” Food Allergy Research & Education. Food Allergy Research & Education. 2016. Web.
  • “Antihistamine for allergies.” MedlinePlus. U.S. National Library of Medicine. October 2016. Web.
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “Anaphylaxis.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic. January 16, 2013. Web.
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