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What is Epinephrine?

By Adam Hill
Updated Feb 24, 2024
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Epinephrine is a hormone that is chemically identical to the adrenaline produced by the body, and the names of the two are often used interchangeably to some extent. When produced naturally by the body, it helps us respond effectively to short-term stress. It is also used as a drug to treat cardiac arrest, asthma, and allergic reactions, especially those which could be fatal if left untreated. It was first synthesized in 1895 by a physiologist from Poland, named Napoleon Cybulski.

The term epinephrine is often used to refer to the artificially derived version of adrenaline, which the body produces naturally in the adrenal glands. It is often referred to as a fight-or-flight hormone, because it helps the body cope with perceived threats. When a threat arises, such as the threat of physical harm, this hormone prepares the body to either stay and confront the threat, or flee quickly enough to survive. It does this by restricting blood flow to certain areas of the body, while increasing blood flow to the muscles. It also dilates the pupils, opens up the airways of the lungs, and increases the heart rate and blood sugar.

Artificially derived epinephrine has saved many lives since its development. It can be used in emergency situations by those who are suffering from an asthma attack or from anaphylaxis, in order to allow breathing again. Anaphylaxis, or anaphylactic shock, is the term for a potentially fatal allergic reaction. Those who have a severe allergy to peanuts or the venom from bee stings, for example often keep a syringe of epinephrine on hand, just in case. It should only be used in emergency situations, however, because of the potential side effects, which can adversely affect the heart.

When the hormone is administered, it is usually injected into the fleshy area of the thigh, and not into a vein, which could prevent it from working properly. Injection into the hands or feet could cause a loss or reduction of blood flow to these areas, and is not recommended. One reason why epinephrine works so well to treat severe allergic reactions is that it suppresses the action of the immune system. This is important to consider, given the fact that it is also produced by the body as a response to stress, including psychological stress.

While our bodies produce adrenaline in generally smaller amounts than are administered medically, high levels of stress over long periods of time can have a very damaging effect on the immune system. Perceived threats, whether physical or psychological, cause the production of adrenaline. While in moderation it can make us more effective in these situations, chronically stressed people are likely to be much more prone to infection and illness than those with manageable stress levels.

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Discussion Comments
By anon968281 — On Sep 02, 2014

I had a reaction to epinephrine at the dentist as the room started to spin an my heart raced. It was very scary. They don't use it on me any more.

By shell4life — On Nov 17, 2012

The epinephrine mechanism in my body goes off too easily. I have had some bad experiences in vehicles, so if I'm in a car and I see another vehicle that looks like it is moving toward me in any way, I get a shot of adrenaline that makes my whole body ready to spring into action.

More often than not, these situations are harmless and require no action. Still, I'm left with a metallic taste in my mouth and shaking hands.

There is another weird side effect of an epinephrine rush. My armpits hurt for several minutes afterward! It's a shooting pain that runs deep, and I've never heard of anyone else experiencing this.

By Kristee — On Nov 17, 2012

I think that those epinephrine pens you can carry around with you are one of the greatest inventions ever! I have a bee allergy, so whenever I go outside, I take the pen with me. I've been saved from some terrifying experiences by that pen.

By OeKc05 — On Nov 16, 2012

@JackWhack – Yes, and this epinephrine has side effects. My aunt went in for a dental procedure, and the shot caused her to have a major panic attack.

She didn't know it at the time, but the epinephrine in those numbing shots is bad about causing panic attacks. She was already prone to them because of her issues with anxiety, so it set her off.

It must have been terrifying to be in a place as scary as a dental exam chair with tools of torture all around and experience a panic attack. I have a fear of dentists, so I would probably have a heart attack if administered epinephrine at a dentist's office!

By JackWhack — On Nov 16, 2012

Did you know that there is epinephrine in dental anesthetics? I recently learned this, and I found it surprising.

Somehow, it keeps the numbing effect in the shot from wearing off. So, anesthetics with epinephrine will keep you numb much longer than those without it. You will even stay numb after the procedure for awhile, so that you won't have to experience a lot of pain.

By irontoenail — On Sep 09, 2012

@bythewell - The problem is that even if you managed to scare someone enough to produce the needed amount of adrenaline, you'd need to keep scaring them until they reached the hospital or the allergic reaction would happen anyway.

It might be worth trying, but when it comes down to it, a child who suddenly can't breathe is going to be terrified anyway. I think that the epinephrine stability and the amount that's administered makes all the difference.

By bythewell — On Sep 09, 2012

@sunshined - I recently read a short story in which a little girl suffers from an allergy and her family hasn't brought the syringe with them. The father has heard that it's possible to save a life in this kind of situation by producing enough natural adrenaline, so he tries to scare his suffering daughter (leading his wife to think he's gone mad as she dashes off to the hospital).

I don't know if this would actually help, but it seems like if you are caught without the needle it might be worth a try.

But, if I had a child with that kind of allergy I think I would keep multiple epinephrine syringes on me at all times.

By sunshined — On Aug 31, 2012

I wonder how many lives have been saved from epinephrine because of peanut allergies? If you know someone who has a child with peanut allergies, you know how serious this can be.

This can be a life threatening situation for my niece, and they have to have epinephrine with them at all times. As a parent it would be hard to live with this constant fear, but you also can't keep your kids in a bubble all the time either.

By bagley79 — On Aug 31, 2012

I have always been fascinated by the way adrenaline works in our bodies when we are under stress. I imagine most everyone can think of a time when they had an adrenaline rush in response to something that happened to them.

My uncle was working on his car and was underneath the car when it slipped and fell on him. When my aunt saw what had happened, she was somehow able to lift the car off of him.

While you never want this to happen to someone, this is one way that adrenaline works in our body when we are under extreme stress or pressure.

By golf07 — On Aug 30, 2012

I found out that I allergic to bee stings and had a severe reaction when I was stung by one. I was rushed to the hospital and was given an epinephrine injection. I could feel this go to work immediately.

They kept me in the emergency room so they could observe me and about 2 hours later I had another reaction so they had to give me a second injection.

Ever since then I keep a syringe of epinephrine with me at all times in case something like this happens again.

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