Are You Really Allergic to Penicillin?
Posted by: Communications Team | August 19, 2018
Great question. For decades I’ve been avoiding Penicillin. Way back when, I had a reaction, potentially to Penicillin, and was advised not to take it. So an article about penicillin allergies on the AARP website this week attacked my attention.
If you’re like the one in 10 Americans who think they have a penicillin allergy, you’ve probably been avoiding the drug for decades. Not only is that probably unnecessary, but it could be dangerous for your health, experts say.
Unlike unnecessarily avoiding peanuts, not taking penicillin when it would normally be prescribed can have serious health consequences for an individual as well as for society. A recent study of over 300,000 patients in the U.K. over six years is the first to show the extent of the danger. Those who reported a penicillin allergy — and thus were given alternative antibiotics — had 69 percent more staph infections (specifically, the antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus aureus[MRSA]) and 26 percent more Clostridium difficile infections than those without a penicillin allergy. Those infections can be difficult to treat and even life-threatening. So it’s more important than ever, researchers say, for those who think they have a penicillin allergy to find out if they really do.
“We want to use the most narrowly effective antibiotic possible, and if allergies are getting in the way of that, gather more information” about the suspected allergy, says Kimberly Blumenthal, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and lead author of the study, published this summer in The British Medical Journal. She says that less than 1 percent of people who have a penicillin allergy on their record get it verified. It’s possible that even a brief conversation with your doctor could clear up the confusion. Otherwise, a simple skin test is available to determine a true allergy.
How Penicillin Works
Penicillin is very targeted. It can kill invasive bacteria while leaving others unharmed. When patients report an allergy to penicillin, they are usually prescribed an alternative broad-spectrum antibiotic that can kill the bacteria causing the infection but also destroy other beneficial bacteria in the body.
Using broad-spectrum antibiotics also leads to more drug-resistant bacteria — superbugs, like MRSA — which leave everyone more vulnerable. “If we can stop the use of these broad-spectrum drugs that kill everything, we won’t see as much C. difficile and resistant bacteria,” says Michael Blaiss, M.D., executive medical director at the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
What a Penicillin Allergic Reaction Looks Like
Allergists say that both patients and doctors have been frequently confused by what a true allergic reaction to penicillin looks like. It's not, for instance, vomiting. Actual reactions include itchy hives, a swelling of the face and other areas, wheezing or difficulty breathing, and they occur within a few hours of taking the drug. “The timing is important; this happens within a few hours, not like hives that appear two weeks later,” Blaiss explains. “A lot of doctors say, ‘You might be allergic to penicillin. Just avoid it.’ ”
Many of those who were told as a child they had a reaction have spent decades avoiding penicillin. Yet after 10 years, most people outgrow the allergy, especially if it's a more typical and less severe one.
Naturally, if you’ve thought you are allergic to the antibiotic and avoided it your whole life, you still might not want to take a chance on a penicillin prescription. One solution is to see an allergist for a simple skin test.
While at the allergist's office, you're watched for hives or swelling after a skin prick. If nothing happens, you might be given an oral dose of penicillin and kept in the office for about an hour to be sure you don’t have a reaction. Most patients don’t. “I’ve seen one person in 35 years develop some wheezing and hives after the test,” Blaiss says. “It’s done in an office, and any allergist is equipped to handle an anaphylactic reaction.”
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We hope you found this information useful. I’m headed to the allergist for a skin test next week. When you want more information about insurance, we’re only a phone call away.
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