Blog Written by Erin Kirwan For Advanced Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology
A phone call with my husband earlier this month went like this:
“Honey, are you allergic to penicillin?”
“Ah. I don’t think so – but maybe.”
I paused before asking my husband for clarification.
“Well,” he continued, “I think they suspected I was allergic as a baby, but it was never confirmed.”
Needless to say, my dear husband has lived all 44 years of his life telling physicians that he believes he is allergic to penicillin, or might be. How have physicians responded? He has been given a non-penicillin based antibiotic.
My husband is not alone. Up to ten percent of people report being allergic to penicillin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, studies have found many people who believe they are allergic to penicillin, really, are not.
“I definitely see this from time to time,” recalls Dr. Patricia Gomez Dinger of Advanced Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology in San Antonio, TX. “It is important to understand that confirming an allergy to penicillin is important for your health and wallet.”
Dr. Dinger, along with the Allergy and Asthma Network, the leading nonprofit patient education organization for people with allergies and asthma, wants us to know these 5 things about penicillin allergy:
- Penicillin allergy is serious and can be dangerous, even life-threatening. It kills 400 people a year. Anyone who is allergic to one type – and there are several – of penicillin should be considered allergic to all penicillins. Dr. Dinger suggests avoiding the entire medication group if a penicillin allergy is confirmed.
- Penicillin allergy may not be a lifelong condition. Just because you’re allergic or have a reaction during childhood does not automatically predict a reaction as an adult. Only about 20-percent of people will be allergic to penicillin ten years after their initial reaction if they are not exposed to it again during this time period.
- Symptoms. Penicillin allergy may show itself with symptoms including hives, swelling of the mouth or throat, difficulty breathing, or dizziness. Usually hives that suggest a true allergy are raised and come on quickly. Non-allergy-related rashes are sometimes flat, blotchy, and spread over days rather than hours.
- Avoiding penicillin if there isn’t an allergy diagnosis is not the best idea. Why? Alternative antibiotics to penicillin, often called “broad-spectrum” may be less effective in treating an infection. They can also cause unwanted side effects. And so-called broad-spectrum treatments are often more expensive.
- See A Board Certified Allergist For Testing. Testing for penicillin allergy is safe and reliable. The process is rather simple. First, the patient undergoes a series of skin prick tests, using gradually increasing amounts of penicillin. A raised site indicates allergy. If the test is negative, we then test orally – the patient drinks liquid penicillin. This kind of testing should always be conducted in the safety of a Board Certified Allergist who is trained in recognizing and treating reaction.
As a mom of three children, none of whom we believe has a penicillin allergy, I would be lying if I said I did not question myself or worry every time their pediatrician asks me whether they are allergic. A small part of me wonders if they might be because of my husband’s own uncertainty. Because they have not had a reaction we assume they are likely not allergic. However, the lack of confirmation on my husband’s part for his questionable allergy definitely plays into a little worry on my part regarding my children’s care.
The bottom line? A simple test, often covered by insurance, might just be the peace of mind we all need says Dr. Dinger.