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A drug allergy happens
when you have a harmful reaction to a medicine you use. Your body's
immune system fights back by setting off an
allergic reaction. Most drug allergies are mild, and
the symptoms go away within a few days after you stop using the medicine. But
some drug allergies can be very serious.
Some drug allergies go
away with time. But after you have an allergic reaction to a drug, you will
probably always be allergic to that drug. You can also be allergic to other
drugs that are like it.
A drug allergy is one type of harmful, or
adverse, drug reaction. There are other kinds of adverse drug reactions. Symptoms and treatments of different kinds of adverse
reactions vary. So your doctor will want to find out if you have a true drug
allergy or if you have another type of bad reaction that isn't as
The symptoms of a drug
allergy can range from mild to very serious. Most of the time they appear within 1 to 72 hours. They include:
Any medicine can cause an allergic reaction. A few of the most common
If you are allergic to one medicine, you may be allergic
to others like it. For example, if you are allergic to penicillin, there is a chance that you may also
be allergic to similar medicines, such as amoxicillin.
Your doctor will
diagnose a drug allergy by asking you questions about the medicines you take
and about any medicines you have taken in the recent past. Your doctor will
also ask about your past health and your symptoms. He or she will do a physical
If this doesn't tell your doctor whether you have a drug
allergy, then he or she may do skin tests. Or your doctor may have you take
small doses of a medicine to see if you have a reaction.
Call 911 right away if you have trouble
breathing or if you start to get hives.
If you have a severe reaction, your first treatment may occur in an emergency room. You may get an epinephrine shot to help you breathe. You may also get medicines, such as
If you have a mild
over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamines may help your
symptoms. You may need prescription medicine if these don't help or if you
have problems with side effects, such as drowsiness. Not all OTC antihistamines cause drowsiness.
The best thing you can do for
a drug allergy is to stop taking the medicine that causes it. Talk to your doctor to see if you can take another type of
If you can't change your medicine, your doctor may try a
method called desensitization. This means that you will start to take small
amounts of the medicine that caused your reaction. Under your doctor's supervision, you will then slowly
increase how much you take. This lets your immune system "get used to" the
medicine. After this, you may no longer have an allergic reaction.
If you have severe drug allergies, your doctor may give you an epinephrine auto-injector as part of an Anaphylaxis Action Plan. Your doctor will teach you how to use it. If you have a serious allergic reaction, you
may need to give yourself the shot and get emergency medical treatment.
Be sure to wear a
medical alert bracelet or other jewelry that lists your drug allergies. If you
are in an emergency, this can save your life.
To take care of yourself at home:
If you do have a mild reaction, take steps to relieve symptoms such as itching. Take cool showers, or apply cool compresses. Wear light clothing that doesn't bother your skin. Stay away from strong soaps and detergents, which can make itching worse.
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
Learning about drug allergies:
The American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology
(ACAAI) provides allergy information for consumers, including a nationwide
allergist referral service.
The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology
publishes an excellent series of pamphlets on allergies, asthma, and related
information. It also provides physician referrals.
Other Works Consulted
McNeil D (2011). Allergic reactions to drugs. In ET Bope et al., eds., Conn's Current Therapy 2011, pp. 796–798. Philadelphia: Saunders.
Grammer LC (2012). Drug allergy. In L Goldman, A Shafer, eds., Goldman's Cecil Medicine, 24th ed., pp. 1638–1640. Philadelphia: Saunders.
Archer GL, Polk RE (2012). Approach to therapy for bacterial diseases. In DL Longo et al., eds., Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 18th ed., vol. 1, pp. 1133–1150. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Baldwin JL, Speck AL (2013). Drug allergies. In EG Nabel, ed., ACP Medicine, section 3, chap.
9. Hamilton, ON: BC Decker.
Celik G, et al. (2009). Drug allergy. In NF Adkinson
Jr et al., eds. Middleton's Allergy Principles and Practice, 7th ed., vol. 1, pp. 1205–1226. Philadelphia: Mosby
Joint Task Force on Practice Parameters (2010). Drug Allergy: An Updated Practice Parameter. Annals of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, 105: e1-e78.
Shinkai K, et al. (2012). Cutaneous drug reactions. In DL Longo et al., eds., Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 18th ed., vol. 1, pp. 432–440. New York: McGraw-Hill.
November 11, 2013
Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine & Rohit K Katial, MD - Allergy and Immunology
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