Think You Have a Penicillin Allergy? Maybe Not

More than 32 million American are estimated to be allergic to penicillin, according to their medical records. But doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital, Kaiser Permanente, and Northwestern University think those numbers may be overestimating the number people who are allergic to penicillin. In an article in JAMA, the doctors point to some scenarios when people can be mistakenly diagnosed with penicillin allergy, preventing them from receiving the life-saving drug later in life.

Penicillin is the most commonly prescribed, and often the most effective, medication available in modern medicine for treating bacterial infections. Lead author, Erica Shenoy M.D., stated that a rash caused by a virus rather than a bacterial infection can easily be mistaken for an allergy to penicillin that was prescribed to a patient. Once a person is noted in their medical record as allergic to penicillin, the label is often extremely hard to shake.

The report’s co-authors argue that penicillin allergy testing and evaluation needs to be much more rigorous. They encourage patients with a recorded penicillin allergy to get a penicillin skin test, amoxicillin challenge, or referral to an allergist to get confirmation, especially if they were diagnosed at a young age. As many as 95 percent people who think they have a penicillin allergy may have been needlessly avoiding this important treatment option. The authors say that getting serious about evaluating these allergies will prevent complications from alternative antibiotics as well as reduce the risk of antibiotic resistance in their patients.

Sourced from: The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)

Patrick Chatfield
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Patrick Chatfield

Patrick Chatfield is a digital editor at He’s the assigning editor for Heart Health, Diabetes, Obesity, Respiratory Health, and Infectious Diseases. He also assists with social media, medical review, and site updates. He’s interested in all things related to science, technology, history, and public health.