New Data on Penicillin Allergies
Though penicillin allergy is the most commonly diagnosed drug allergy, there has been mounting evidence in recent years that many people who believe they are allergic to penicillin are in fact not allergic to it. True penicillin allergy is actually quite rare.
A study that was just published in the journal Pediatrics investigated a potential penicillin allergy in 100 children between the ages of 4 and 18. The parents of all 100 children reported that their child had a penicillin allergy, but each child was deemed “low-risk” because the symptoms that led to a diagnosis were common symptoms seen in children, such as a rash. The researchers tested all 100 children for a penicillin allergy, and all 100 children tested negative.
Why are so many children who are not allergic to penicillin diagnosed as such? The answer is that penicillin allergies are often diagnosed based on clinical symptoms rather than through allergy tests. In other words, physicians will often stop a course of penicillin if a rash, itching, or vomiting occurs because these symptoms could indicate an allergy.
Because subsequent exposures to penicillin in the case of allergy can be more dangerous, the physicians will often then avoid using these antibiotics. The children (and their parents) therefore continue assuming they have a penicillin allergy without being tested.
The biggest problem with thinking that you’re allergic to penicillin when you’re not is that you will not be given penicillin or other widely used antibiotics like amoxicillin. If you get sick with an infection that would normally be treated with these antibiotics, you will instead be given something that is more likely to have adverse side effects and is also more likely to be much more expensive.
As it becomes clearer that penicillin allergy has been over-diagnosed, some physicians and researchers are recommending that penicillin allergy tests be conducted to confirm a penicillin allergy. Confirmation may be especially important in the low-risk cases, where the clinical symptoms that led to diagnosis are relatively harmless symptoms that are likely to arise from common viruses.