Q: Someone I know was having difficulty sleeping on a trip. A friend suggested trying the diphenhydramine (e.g., Benadryl) from our first aid kit. Shortly after, this person developed hives, chest tightness and shortness of breath. We administered epinephrine from the kit for a presumed anaphylactic reaction and evacuated him. In the end, after a brief visit to a hospital emergency department, everything turned out well. Is this common with diphenhydramine or any other antihistamine?
A: Interesting story. One can develop an allergic reaction to any medication or any of its ingredients. Antihistamine is a class of medications and there are a number of different ones that fall under that rubric. Diphenhydramine (e.g., Benadryl) is one. They can be used to treat allergic symptoms like hives and dampen or prevent them. Because drowsiness is a frequent diphenhydramine side effect, it is a commonly added ingredient in over-the-counter sleep aides in North America. It is not a naturally occurring hormone in our bodies so if this was indeed an immediate allergic/anaphylactic reaction, it or a chemical used during manufacture could have been the precipitant. Using the assumption that this was indeed an allergic reaction, the person could be allergic to any medication within the class. This could also have been an anticholinergic reaction to the diphenhydramine (e.g., flushed skin, dry mouth, anxiety, urine retention, constipation) or an anaphylactic reaction to something else the person was exposed to. True allergic reactions to antihistamines are unusual. Fortunately we have other better options for serious reactions (e.g., epinephrine, corticosteroids).
What about allergic reactions to epinephrine? Epinephrine is produced by the body endogenously. Most supposed allergic reactions are in fact caused by adrenergic side effects (e.g., rapid heart rate, shakes, vasoconstriction). Other reactions attributed to epinephrine may be caused by the xylocaine (anaesthetic) it is mixed with for local dental anaesthesia. Conceivably, a true allergic reaction during epinephrine administration could be caused by one of the preservatives (e.g., bisulfites, antioxidants) added during manufacture. These have to be exceedingly rare
Next time if you are are trying to sleep, try warm milk.