Antibiotic Allergies: Are You Really Allergic?

AntibioticsNext time you’re about to routinely recite the antibiotics to which you claim to have had an allergic reaction, stop and think about it for a minute. Did you really show signs of an allergy? Did you feel nauseated or have a headache? Maybe someone told you long ago that you were allergic to certain kinds, so you’ve reported it ever since, just to be safe.

That may not be safe anymore. Because of the increase in so-called superbug infections – the highly resistant strains of bacteria that are tougher to fight – it’s worth re-thinking whether you really are allergic to any antibiotics. You could be limiting what doctors may use to save your life.

Many of us have been told over the years by well-intentioned people that we are allergic to certain antibiotics. Now it’s important to know whether we exhibited real symptoms of allergy that can range from hives and wheezing to life-threatening anaphylactic shock. Research shows that most of the time, when people report having an allergy to antibiotics, they did not have that kind of reaction.

It matters because reporting an antibiotic allergy means that doctors may have to forego the drug of choice for treatment. That often results in using a broader-spectrum antibiotic that could not only be less effective, it can also contribute to a patient’s resistance to antibiotics down the road. Over the long haul, that’s how more superbugs develop. Also, in an acute medical situation, what’s in a patient’s medical record may take on greater importance that what he or she says about a suspected allergy. Doctors would be hesitant at best to take that chance at that time.

In the case of a suspected penicillin allergy, a routine skin test can determine if the allergy is real. If it’s another kind of antibiotic, report only what you know to be true. It simply doesn’t make sense to shrink the safety net based on hearsay or a hunch.

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