By Brenda Silvia-Torma, MEd
For years, I believed I was allergic to penicillin.
It started when I was 4 and developed a red, splotchy rash all over my body while taking amoxicillin – a type of penicillin. My pediatrician told my parents I must be allergic.
Since then, whenever I came down with a bacterial infection, my doctors would prescribe non-penicillin antibiotics often considered second or third lines of treatment because of their potential for stronger side effects. Ciprofloxacin, best known for treating anthrax, became one of my go-to antibiotics.
Recent studies have shown many people who believe they are allergic to penicillin are not, so my allergist, Courtney Jackson Blair, MD, of McLean, Virginia, encouraged me to get tested.
If I could take penicillin for bacterial infections, I would not have to resort to ciprofloxacin, which has a host of side effects that include dizziness, nausea, diarrhea and tendinitis.
Initially, I put testing off; I was afraid of experiencing a life-threatening reaction, or anaphylaxis. I continued to take ciprofloxacin to treat bacterial infections, but I began to wonder if the medication might lose some effectiveness due to bacterial resistance.
I decided to undergo the testing to find out for sure if I was allergic to penicillin. If I did have a severe reaction, I knew I’d be in the right place – Dr. Blair’s office – surrounded by medical professionals. And epinephrine auto-injectors would be readily available.
My penicillin test was straightforward. It was in two parts.
First I underwent a series of skin tests in which gradually increasing amounts of penicillin were injected into different sites on my arm. I felt a minor, temporary burning sensation after each injection – otherwise the process was pain-free. Best of all, I passed the skin test, showing no reaction to the penicillin.
Next up was an oral challenge. This involved drinking gradually increasing amounts of liquid penicillin. Again, I passed the test.
I was relieved when Dr. Blair confirmed I was NOT allergic to penicillin. No more ciprofloxacin – or other intense antibiotics – as a first line of treatment.
Anyone who believes they are allergic to penicillin should undergo testing, says Dr. Blair, an Anaphylaxis Community Experts (ACE) volunteer with Allergy & Asthma Network.
“An allergist will work with you to determine if you’re truly allergic to penicillin,” she says. “If you’re not, then you’ll be open to medications that are potentially safer, more effective and less expensive.”
Brenda Silvia-Torma, MEd, is program manager for the Anaphylaxis Community Experts program. She has worked for Allergy & Asthma Network since 2012.
Reviewed by Michael Mellon, MD