Q. My son is 7, allergic to dairy and has had anaphylaxis to peanut butter. He knows how an auto-injector works, but giving himself a needle in an emergency is still a big bridge to cross. At what age should he be able to use it?
Dr. Scott Sicherer: Being able to recognize the need for epinephrine and to actually self-inject in an emergency are beyond the capability of most children your son’s age. The readiness to self-administer requires the appropriate developmental level, understanding about symptoms of a reaction, and then the willingness to inject the epinephrine.
Before you consider the readiness of your child, speak with your allergist to be sure you are comfortable with recognizing symptoms and understand when and how to inject epinephrine. Since barriers to using the auto-injector include “needle phobia” and unfounded worries about side effects, have a discussion with the allergist about the safety of epinephrine, and perhaps practice with an old injector and an orange. Achieving your own comfort is the first step in preparing the right message to give to a child who will eventually take on this responsibility.
The notion of self-treatment can be taught early on, but granting full independence is a much more gradual process. For all children, I generally instruct that a responsible adult should be available to make treatment decisions and ultimately inject epinephrine.
For teenagers, having their friends aware of the food allergy and how to inject epinephrine can add another layer of safety.
Gradually include your child in allergy management, with guidance from your doctor. Having him practice with an epinephrine self-injection trainer is a good first step.
The road toward independence also includes having him play a part in reading labels on packaged foods, speaking up about allergy at restaurants, and eventually discussing when epinephrine would be required.
Dr. Scott Sicherer is a practicing allergist, clinical researcher and professor of pediatrics. He is Chief of the Division of Allergy and Immunology, Jaffe Food Allergy Institute, at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. He’s also the author of Food Allergies: A Complete Guide for Eating When Your Life Depends On It.
To submit a question, write to email@example.com. Write “The Food Allergy Experts” in the subject field, and keep your question brief.