Leslie Hancock always thought she was allergic to penicillin. She was told that, at a young age, she had reacted to the antibiotic. “I was always told: ‘Do not take penicillin, it could kill you.” So I always put ‘penicillin-allergic’ on my medical charts.”
She avoided it her entire life and, plagued with sinus infections, her doctors had to resort to broad-spectrum antibiotics. “The doctors were giving me the big guns for sinus infections or UTIs (urinary tract infections). They kept on moving up the chain on the family of antibiotics,” she says.
Hancock’s story is consistent with research into people’s experiences with penicillin allergies. “What has been found in studies is patients who have that ‘penicillin allergy’ on their charts tend to have compromised medical care,” says Dr. Roland Solensky.
“They get other antibiotics, which tend to be more costly. Sometimes they have to use the broad-spectrum antibiotics, which are not the ideal treatment. These are prone to causing other problems like antibiotic resistance and clostridium difficile, which can even be fatal,” the allergist says.
Hancock came across an article that said 90 percent of the people who have an allergy to penicillin either never had it, or have outgrown it. She had also recently read that penicillin was an important medication for people as they age and suffer more infections. She decided to visit an allergist.
“I did a skin test and had no reaction whatsoever,” she says. The next time she has an infection where penicillin is the best choice of antibiotic, the plan is to proceed cautiously, starting with a half-dose.
“Penicillin is an extremely important drug,” says Dr. Tim Mainardi. “And when a patient comes in with a penicillin allergy, it absolutely reduces the number of first choice antibiotics.” Experts urge those who believe they have a penicillin allergy, but aren’t certain, to speak to their physician about a skin test.