Most People Who Believe They’re Allergic to Penicillin Aren’t

Are you one of the 10% of people who’s been diagnosed with a penicillin allergy? Or do you know someone with a penicillin allergy? Well there’s a good chance that the medication allergy was actually misdiagnosed. Even worse, the misdiagnosis could put someone at higher risk for certain infections.

About 10% of the population believes they’re allergic to penicillin, but only 1% actually is. This is due to viral rashes and minor side effects being mistaken for penicillin allergies and the tendency for most people who were allergic to actually lose the allergy after about a decade. Let's review how a misdiagnosed penicillin allergy could increase health risks and what we can do about it.

Common Drug Allergy (Not so Common, Actually)

According to the CDC, 10% of the population has been diagnosed as allergic to penicillin, making it the most commonly reported drug allergy. In reality, only 1% of the population actually tests positive for penicillin antibodies. This means most people who believe they’re allergic to penicillin really aren’t.

Skewed Data

Many misdiagnosed penicillin allergies can trace back to viral infections the prescriptions coincided with. Numerous childhood diseases, well beyond those we now vaccinate against, can cause rashes, including common strains of strep and staph. Since hives are one symptom of a penicillin allergy, it can be easy to jump the gun and presume penicillin is the cause of the rash.

Many people who’ve had true allergic reactions to penicillin may also find their allergies have disappeared. An estimated 80% of confirmed penicillin allergies will naturally disappear after about a decade. That means even if you were properly diagnosed, the chances of your allergy persisting are low.

Some people have mild reactions to penicillin, such as diarrhea or nausea, and take their symptoms as evidence that they have an allergy. It’s important to understand the difference between minor adverse reactions and a true allergy. According to researchers, most people who’ve had adverse reactions are actually safe to take penicillin.

Health Impacts

Penicillin is one of the only antibiotics effective against deadly methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infections. It’s also less likely than many other antibiotics to cause opportunistic Clostridium difficile infections. Both of these infections are highly contagious and can spread quickly in hospitals and care facilities. People with reported penicillin allergies who are given alternate antibiotics in these settings are more likely to contract both MRSA and Clostridium difficile.

Getting Tested

Penicillin allergy misdiagnosis might be a serious issue, but the solution may be as simple as going to your doctor or allergist for a skin test. Just a scratch of penicillin will likely tell you whether you’re allergic. An allergy is likely if your skin reacts to the scratch. If it doesn’t, your next step is to do a penicillin challenge in the safety of your doctor’s office, where staff can intervene if you have a reaction. If you don’t react, you’re not presently allergic.

The effects of misdiagnosed penicillin allergies have only recently become evident, but now that we know the facts, the next step is up to us. Those of us who do believe we’re allergic to penicillin need to challenge that diagnosis; your future health depends on it. Find out whether you actually are allergic, and get the allergy taken off your medical chart if you aren’t. You might need the penicillin someday, and that one bit of updated information could save your life.

~ Here’s to Your Health and Wellness

9/23/2022 4:00:00 AM
Wellness Editor
Written by Wellness Editor
Wellness Exists to Empower Health Conscious Consumers. helps people live healthier, happier and more successful lives by connecting them with the best health, wellness and lifestyle information and resources on the web.
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Posted by alex
I was diagnosed as a child = have never had a penicillin shot. I am 73 y/o. Excellent article = I will request a test next visit to PCM.
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