Allergic to penicillin? You may want to get a second opinion

As many as 10% of people who think they are allergic to penicillin aren’t.

Local allergist Dr. Sunil Joshi explained why so many people may have the wrong information about their allergy.

“So if you have a bacterial infection and you start on an antibiotic like a penicillin-based antibiotic and then develop a rash afterwards, the first thing that people think is, ‘oh my gosh I’m allergic to penicillin’ and the patients are told to avoid that the rest of their life when in fact that rash might have occurred as a result of the bacteria itself and have nothing to do with the penicillin,” explained Dr. Joshi.

What many people do not realize is a viral or bacterial infection can cause a skin rash, but that rash is often blamed on an antibiotic used to treat the infection instead of the infection itself.

A child who develops a rash or hives is then labeled as allergic to the antibiotic, even though they may not have followed up with an allergist to confirm the source of the allergy.

RELATED | Study: Many children with Penicillin allergy not allergic to the drug

You might be surprised to hear how many people are living their life without a complete picture of their medical history as it relates to a penicillin allergy.

‘So if you look at the entire population of folks who think that they are allergic to penicillin, once you actually get an adequate history from that patient, in other words, try to understand what was their reaction and what was the timing of their reaction, typically only 10% of those people truly are allergic to penicillin,” explained Dr. Joshi.

“Once you get that history, and if it’s been more than 10 years since that reaction, only 10% of people are still allergic. So, if you started with a group of 100 people who said they were allergic to penicillin and it’s been more than 10 years since the reaction and you go through the history and timetable, only 1 of those people may truly be allergic at the end of that history,” he said.

Not knowing for sure, can have a long-term impact on your health.

Dr. Joshi explained penicillin is a very effective treatment for a wide variety of infections, not being able to take it can limit treatment options, which can cause problems as people age.

“As we get older, especially our folks in their sixties, seventies, and eighties, what puts us in the hospital with infections is typically respiratory infections, like community acquired pneumonia,” he explained. “You go to the hospital and you’re labeled penicillin allergic because of something that happened when you were six years old. They’re not going to give you that penicillin antibiotic. They’re going to give you the second choice, which may be less effective and certain would be more costly,” he explained.

What about other medication allergies? Should you re-test? Dr. Joshi said it’s certainly worth revisiting with a doctor whether you are allergic, especially if you feel like you will need the medication in the future.

A skin test is used to reveal an allergy followed by additional testing, if necessary. These tests can be conducted by an allergist.

You should never test an allergy without the close supervision of a doctor.

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