A common source of confusion and worry among patients is the subject of allergies. I’m not talking about sneezing and runny nose symptoms from lots of pollen in the air – I’m talking about allergies to medications.
You know when a doctor or nurse asks, “are you allergic to anything?” – how would you answer that question?
Many people just start giving a long list of anything they’ve ever touched, tasted, breathed, or looked at funny, and didn’t enjoy it.
I’ve seen anything from Peaches to Penicillin to Mayonnaise on a “drug allergies” list. Some folks are allergic to dyes, cleaning solutions, and latex.
What happens if you have lots of allergies?
Most of the time it’s wise for nurses and doctors to take patients seriously and write all of these down. Problems arise when someone has a list of 20-30 “allergies” that start to interfere with the actual caring for the patient’s needs.
For example, if someone is truly allergic to latex, that means that any latex that touches the skin can cause them to stop breathing if the reaction is bad enough. All the products, bandages, tubing, and equipment must be checked and changed in the operating room before a patient goes to surgery. However, if a person is just “sensitive” to latex or has a mild reaction to it, that’s totally different and may change what type of equipment can be used. Latex-free options are not always the same and are often inferior to products containing latex.
Only about 10% of people who say they’re allergic to penicillin are also allergic to the most common antibiotic given in surgery, which is a relative of penicillin but not technically the same thing. Often some doctors won’t give the common drug if someone says they’re truly allergic to penicillin.
The difference between allergies and reactions
A true allergy to a medication involves swelling, trouble breathing, usually along with hives or a widespread skin reaction. This can be life threatening and is called an anaphylactic (anna-fuh-lack-tik) reaction.
Simple “reactions” to medications are much more common – rash, itching, nausea, diarrhea, are examples. These are not life-threatening and for some patients are easily treated with anti-itching or anti-nausea medications taken at the same time.
So the next time a nurse or doctor asks about allergies to medications, you can help by classifying them a little better, which helps you get better care. One big tip here: write them down ahead of time (like, now) so you can just hand the information to the staff when the time is right.