Migraine Medications - Allergies vs Reactions
Migraine patients often end up needing to try multiple medications to manage their conditions. The more medications patients try, the more likely they will eventually suffer some type of an adverse reaction. Understanding what type of reaction has occurred when the patient tried a medication is very important… even potentially life-saving.
What is a Medication Allergy?
An allergy is a very specific type of reaction. It involves immune cells such as basophils and mast cells that react to allergens the body recognizes as foreign and therefore a danger. In this case, the medication is the allergen that the body has been sensitized to by previous exposure. A reaction is triggered, and the body releases chemicals such as histamine and leukotrienes, which result in allergic symptoms. This reaction is like an army trying to fight off the enemy.
Your hypersensitive immune system is trying to protect your body. Particular symptoms appear and can range from mild to life-threatening.
Examples of allergy symptoms include:
- hives or welts;
- itchy or runny mucus membranes such as those found in the sinuses, mouth and down the throat;
- swelling of tissues - all parts of the body may swell, but the most dangerous swelling occurs along the airway;
- difficulty breathing, tightening of the throat;
- increased heart rate, decreased blood pressure;
- anaphylaxis (a life-threatening allergic reaction).
When you have had an allergic reaction to a medicine, it is important that your doctor be informed of the reaction and the symptoms you suffered during the reaction. It’s important that records of your reaction are kept so that you don’t accidentally come into contact with that medication or other medicines that are also likely to cause a similar reaction, again.
Allergies can appear from nowhere.
A Medication Side Effect, Sensitivity or Reaction?
A medication reaction or side effect, is not an allergy. There are no immune cells being activated and no attack by the body. In this case the body is reacting negatively to the general effects of the medication on its organs. These types of reactions are often shocking and may make you feel quite sick, but are usually less likely to be fatal than an allergic reaction, which may be quick and dangerous.
Examples of a medication side effects include:
- muscle spasms or aches;
- dry eyes and mouth;
- digestive upset including diarrhea, constipation, nausea and vomiting;
Side effects are important to tell your doctor about too, but it’s vital that your doctor understands that what you experienced were side effects, not an allergic reaction of your immune system.
Why not be safe and call all reactions and sensitivities an allergy?
Because it's NOT safe.
When your health care team records your health history, allergies and side effects will be carefully noted. If an emergency should occur, it may be necessary to save your life by giving you a medication to which you’ve had a side effect.
Giving the medication you are allergic to would potentially invite anaphylaxis and death. Giving a medication you have had an unpleasant side effect to is less likely to be deadly. When given the choice, your health care team will often choose a treatable side effect over allowing you to die, or making you worse with a potentially fatal allergy. They will get into serious trouble if they give you a medicine you have declared you are allergic to though. As a result, you may miss out on receiving important treatment because your health care team treated you inappropriately.
Mistakenly telling your health care team incorrect information can be a very dangerous thing to do. It’s giving them the wrong instructions. It is better to explain to your doctor exactly what your symptoms were and let your doctor diagnose your problem.
Here is an excellent video produced by the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology that explains the difference between allergies and adverse drug reactions
Live your best life,
© Ellen Schnakenberg, 2013.
Last updated September 30, 2013.