Allergic to penicillin? Maybe not any more

More than 90 per cent of people recorded as having a penicillin allergy may not actually be allergic.

This comes to the fore in the new Australian guidelines on antibiotics in the latest issue of Australian Prescriber. The guidelines are reviewed by experts Misha Devchand and Dr Jason Trubiano from Austin Health in Melbourne.

People incorrectly thought to be allergic to penicillin are likely to be treated with a broad-spectrum antibiotic that may be less appropriate.

The large number of people unnecessarily taking these antibiotics could contribute to the global problem of antibiotic resistance.

Also, longer hospital stays, higher rates of hospital readmission, surgical site infections and admissions to intensive care units can be the result if people are given alternative antibiotics that are not the first-line treatment for their infection.

“Not only may most penicillin allergies recorded be inaccurate, but many penicillin allergies wane over time,” Ms Devchand said.

“Half of people allergic to penicillin will lose their allergy over five years, and 80 per cent over 10 years.”

She advises people who think they are allergic to penicillin to have their allergy reassessed and potentially have it ‘de-labelled’ from their health record.

The article explains how a potential penicillin allergy is assessed and that it should be kept in mind that feeling sick while taking an antibiotic is probably not a true allergy.

“Your doctor may ask for details of the reaction, how it was managed and whether you needed to be taken to hospital,” Ms Devchand said.

For people who have a true allergy, the article considers which antibiotics may also be unsuitable, stressing that “it’s also important to know the timing of the allergic reaction – was it within hours of taking penicillin or a few days later?”

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