Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Allergic to Penicillin?

Penicillin appears to be the “miracle drug” for treating bacterial infections. For some people however, use of the antibiotic can cause strong and sometimes deadly allergic reactions.

Symptoms of an allergic reaction include:
  • Hives
  • Rash
  • Itchy skin
  • Wheezing
  • Swollen lips, tongue or face
In rare cases however, penicillin may cause an allergic patient to fall into a potentially fatal anaphylactic shock. In fact, between 500 to 1,000 deaths related to penicillin are reported in the United States per year.

When patients do suffer a reaction, they usually receive an epinephrine shot. In milder reactions however, most people can use over the counter antihistamines such as Benadryl.

People with severe allergies often wear medical bracelets to warn medical workers not to administer penicillin if the patient is unconscious or cannot otherwise inform medics about their allergy. The bracelets are available at many places including (this one is made of Sterling Silver and sells for $175!). A common bracelet is pictured on the right.

Surprisingly, many people wrongly believe that they are allergic to the antibiotic. "Bad reactions" resulting in rashes and hives often occur.

These reactions do not necessarily mean a person is actually allergic to penicillin however. Of the people claiming to be allergic to the antibiotic, only 10% actually are. Testing for the allergy is done through either a skin or a blood test.


Deirdre said...

I am one of the unlucky few who is actually allergic to penicillin. As a very young child I was prescribed some and broke out in a pretty ugly rash. Later allergy testing proved that I was definitely allergic. I am however not doomed to a puss covered death due to infection, and people with such allergies can usually take lots of other beta-lactam antibiotics. The most popular choices are usually from the tetracylcine class (like azithromycin, which I'm sure everyone has been perscribed from Student Health).

John Latto said...

Allergies are strange. Not the mechanism, that is actually well understood. What is strange is the seemingly random selection of items each individual might be allergic to. My mother, for example was allergic to Penicillin and Lobster. I am allergic to snails, which I ate once by mistake in France.

Kelsey Waite said...

I agree that allergies are strange. Both my sister and I were allergic to strawberries as children, but it wore off for both of us. How does that even happen..?

Deirdre said...

I always wondered if my penicillin allergy had to due with my mold allergy. Seems logical, but then again I was told I was allergic to Red Dye #40 as a child... that is pretty strange, even as allergies go. I am eating HotTamales as we speak! The allergy seemed to just go away with age, I think that is a frequent occurrence.