One out of 10 people think they are allergic to penicillin, but new research suggests nearly all of those people are wrong.
A report published in the January edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital found that 95 percent of people who think they have the allergy actually don't. The start-up state has doctors advising patients to get re-tested for the allergy, so that they can be treated more effectively.
"All the day in and day out is disprove penicillin allergies," says study co-author Dr. Kimberly Blumenthal, an internist specializing in allergy and immunology. “I did this four times just yesterday. It's getting so hard to find the patients who are truly allergic. ”
Approximately one out of 20 people actually have the allergy, she says, which is usually diagnosed in childhood when someone is first exposed to antibiotics. The initial reaction may be anything from minor itching to severe anaphylaxis, but even then, the allergy usually goes away on its own after a decade.
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The report, which took more than three years to complete, looked at data on penicillin allergies in the US and Europe, and found that not only are the diagnoses incorrect , but most of the time, patients do not even remember the origin of their diagnosis, which might have happened years ago.
Erica Shenoy, an internist specializing in infectious diseases and immunizations at Mass General and co-author of the study. “They might have had when they were a kid and now one knew what it was from. Infections in children that cause rashes are so common, whether viral or bacterial. '' It's getting so hard to find the patients who are truly allergic. '
Before penicillin was introduced in the 1940s, an infected scratch could have been deadly. But the drug ushered in the antibiotic era, and often made fatal benefits like pneumonia, gonorrhea and rheumatic fever, suddenly treatable. Today, numerous common antibiotics, such as amoxicillin and Augmentin, are part of the penicillin family and are used to treat a slew of conditions from ear infections to strep throat.
Penicillin is a powerful and "narrow" antibiotic – meaning that it treats specific issues strongly by directly targeting the issue – that makes it the best treatment for, say, syphilis. But, if a patient thinks they have the allergy, the doctor will prescribe a broad-spectrum antibiotic that treats a range of benefits instead – which can be less effective, ”depending on the infection, says Shenoy, who adds that the overprescribing of antibiotics is also contributing to the drug-resistant bacteria epidemic.
So who should get re-tested? Pretty much everyone who thinks they have an allergy, especially if you can't remember why you think you have one in the first place.
The in-office assessment will look for immediate reactions using the standard prick that has been around since the 1960s but only FDA-approved in 2009. Bonus: It's most likely covered by your insurance provider.
"If a patient says they are allergic to penicillin, the doctor should ask questions and encourage re-testing," Shenoy says. “Getting re-tested for penicillin allergy should be part of a health maintenance checklist.”