Since its serendipitous discovery by Alexander Fleming in 1928, penicillin has developed into one of the leading lights of the antibiotic world. But quite a few of us are allergic to it — or so we think. It appears that a startling number of folks who profess a penicillin allergy come to that conclusion without actual testing, and doctors seeing them for a pesky cough or infection often take them at their word.
However, this operating procedure is being reevaluated in the age of the superbug. With use of penicillin, a frontline treatment for infection, being dismissed out of hand for many patients, doctors turn to bigger guns; prescribing harsher drugs that are more likely to prompt resistance in what’s being treated. So, an individual’s phantom allergy to everyone’s favourite bread mold derivative could lead to us all being toast!
In a study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, researchers have tested a new protocol that takes the guesswork out of penicillin allergy diagnosis:
“[Lead author, allergist, and immunologist Kimberly] Blumenthal and colleagues assessed different methods for beating back allergy myths in internal medicine inpatients at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital over a two-year period. The study was broken into three spaced-out segments. In the first, researchers collected baseline data for penicillin and related prescriptions over five months. In the second, seven-month stretch, they looked at the same data when doctors were prompted to have patients consider taking skin allergy tests before antibiotic prescriptions. And in the last seven-month segment, they looked at prescription data when doctors had a computerized, clinical guideline for making decisions about prescriptions.”
Of the 43 participants who ended up cleared to undergo skin tests, none were shown to have the penicillin allergy they thought they had. The third group, the one given just a bit more diagnostic scrutiny by doctors, had a two-fold improvement in prescriptions.
This just goes to show that one can rarely go wrong in applying a bit of science to commonly held assumptions. It not only provides clarity about individual personal health, but might help us all avoid the Great Filter of a rampant superbug. That’s a win-win!