It’s a common question doctors ask before they write out an antibiotic script. A lot of people say yes but according to research from the University of Melbourne, many may not be and as a result are unnecessarily exposed to more expensive antibiotics that should really be held back for people who have resistant bugs.

There are two main groups of people who report problems after taking an antibiotic: those who have what are really drug side-effects, things like nausea, an upset tummy, a headache, feeling lousy or maybe a very mild rash due in reality to a virus.  It’s not an allergy – just something in the drug.

Then there are those with true allergies, who have had a bad rash like hives or welts or trouble with swollen lips or breathing.

The Melbourne study looked at all older patients admitted to two hospitals over a fortnight and investigated those who were labelled as allergic to antibiotics. What they found was that people were often incorrectly labelled.

A few may have had more serious allergies than they thought but most – around 60% – were either not allergic at all or had had such a mild set of symptoms that it was probably safe to be challenged with an antibiotic that they were allegedly allergic to.

Sometimes if the symptoms are allergic, that might mean doing the challenge under expert supervision. So it’s definitely not something to try on your own.

But if you have in the past been labelled as allergic to an antibiotic, it’s worth asking your doctor about it. Because one day you might really need whatever antibiotics are available and it would be shame to restrict that unnecessarily.

Last Reviewed: 13/09/2019

© Norman Swan Medical Communications.