Optimal treatment of anaphylaxis: antihistamines versus epinephrine

Postgrad Med. 2014 Jul;126(4):73-81. doi: 10.3810/pgm.2014.07.2785.


Anaphylaxis is a rapid, systemic, often unanticipated, and potentially life-threatening immune reaction occurring after exposure to certain foreign substances. The main immunologic triggers include food, insect venom, and medications. Multiple immunologic pathways underlie anaphylaxis, but most involve immune activation and release of immunomodulators. Anaphylaxis can be difficult to recognize clinically, making differential diagnosis key. The incidence of anaphylaxis has at least doubled during the past few decades, and in the United States alone, an estimated 1500 fatalities are attributed to anaphylaxis annually. The increasing incidence and potentially life-threatening nature of anaphylaxis coupled with diagnostic challenges make appropriate and timely treatment critical. Epinephrine is universally recommended as the first-line therapy for anaphylaxis, and early treatment is critical to prevent a potentially fatal outcome. Despite the evidence and guideline recommendations supporting its use for anaphylaxis, epinephrine remains underused. Data indicate that antihistamines are more commonly used to treat patients with anaphylaxis. Although histamine is involved in anaphylaxis, treatment with antihistamines does not relieve or prevent all of the pathophysiological symptoms of anaphylaxis, including the more serious complications such as airway obstruction, hypotension, and shock. Additionally, antihistamines do not act as rapidly as epinephrine; maximal plasma concentrations are reached between 1 and 3 hours for antihistamines compared with < 10 minutes for intramuscular epinephrine injection. This demonstrates the need for improved approaches to educate physicians and patients regarding the appropriate treatment of anaphylaxis.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adrenergic alpha-Agonists / pharmacokinetics
  • Adrenergic alpha-Agonists / therapeutic use*
  • Adrenergic beta-Agonists / pharmacokinetics
  • Adrenergic beta-Agonists / therapeutic use*
  • Anaphylaxis / diagnosis
  • Anaphylaxis / drug therapy*
  • Anaphylaxis / immunology
  • Anaphylaxis / physiopathology
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Epinephrine / pharmacokinetics
  • Epinephrine / therapeutic use*
  • Histamine Antagonists / pharmacokinetics
  • Histamine Antagonists / therapeutic use*
  • Humans
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Adrenergic alpha-Agonists
  • Adrenergic beta-Agonists
  • Histamine Antagonists
  • Epinephrine