If you have a life-threatening allergy, you’ve probably been prescribed an EpiPen to use in case of emergencies. You might keep it in your purse or at your office and not given it a whole lot of thought—that is, until this week, when the name “EpiPen” has been all over the news. Here’s what you need to know about the latest drug pricing scandal that affects some 3.6 million Americans carrying the medication in their daily lives.
What is an EpiPen, exactly?
EpiPens are pen-shaped devices containing a drug that can prevent patients with severe allergies from going into anaphylaxis, an extreme reaction that can cause swelling in the airways, which can lead to unconsciousness or even death (antihistamines are the drugs that treat low-grade allergies like hay fever). The pens contain epinephrine, otherwise known as adrenaline, which relaxes the muscles and opens up the airways, allowing a person to breathe.
If you’ve ever seen someone go into anaphylaxis, it’s pretty scary. But if they have an EpiPen, they can self-administer lifesaving medication—the patient pulls off the cap, then rams the needle into her own thigh. The drugs enter the blood stream immediately, kicking in within 30 seconds. But the drugs in an EpiPen aren’t a cure for anaphylaxis—they typically wear off after 10 to 20 minutes, so an EpiPen is really just a way to buy time while a patient seeks medical attention after a severe allergic reaction.