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Are you really allergic to penicillin?

Penicillin refers to a group of safe and inexpensive antibiotics that are frequently prescribed for an array of bacterial infections. Unfortunately, some people have demonstrated allergies to penicillin. These allergies occur when the immune system reacts to the penicillin. These reactions often lead to hives or rashes. In extreme cases, anaphylaxis can occur, which is life-threatening. Though a number of people believe they suffer from a penicillin allergy, there are recent suggestions that a number of these people do not in fact have this allergy.

Researchers from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center have said that 90% of those who believe they have a penicillin allergy are not actually allergic to these antibiotics. One reason for our misperception of the prevalence of penicillin allergy is that allergy status changes over time. As with many other types of allergies, people who once suffered from penicillin allergy can outgrow the allergy. What this means is that there are often many people avoiding these antibiotics at times in their life when the antibiotics would actually not cause them any problems.

Another reason that people mistakenly believe they are allergic to penicillin is because they are misdiagnosed or misinterpret the cause of the symptoms they endure after taking these antibiotics. Because antibiotics only help people with bacterial infections, those with viral infections will continue to experience their symptoms after taking penicillin or other antibiotics. Often when sick people do not respond to antibiotics, they believe that their persistent sickness is due to the medication.

Because there is a significant chance that patients who believe that they are allergic to penicillin are not actually allergic to the antibiotics, it is prudent for these patients to ask to be tested for this particular allergy. Tests for a penicillin allergy generally include a skin test. If the skin test is negative, people who are suspected to have a penicillin allergy are often then also given an oral test for the allergy. The oral test involves giving the patient a small amount of penicillin and monitoring them for any reaction.

The most important reason to confirm whether one suffers from penicillin allergy is that these antibiotics tend not to have the negative side effects of other antibiotics that are prescribed for those who cannot tolerate penicillin. The antibiotics that are prescribed to patients who believe they are allergic to penicillin are known as broad-spectrum antibiotics, and there is research that shows that these types of antibiotics can kill bacteria that are beneficial. For instance, these antibiotics can kill bacteria that promote a healthy gut and healthy skin. Broad-spectrum antibiotics are also thought to contribute to superbugs, or bacteria that do not respond to antibiotics. These superbugs can lead to infections that are life-threatening. MRSA, bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, have been found to be more common among people who have reported penicillin allergies, which supports the idea that broad-spectrum antibiotics promote the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Though it is important to avoid penicillin if one is in fact allergic to it, the advantages of treating bacterial infections with penicillin are significant. Those who believe that they are allergic to penicillin may therefore benefit from confirming their allergy status at different points in time.

Dr. Summit Shah

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