New test reveals whether you really ARE allergic to penicillin

A new test that proves if someone is genuinely allergic to penicillin could pave the way for millions more people to benefit from the drug, regarded as one of the most effective antibiotics available.

Around three million Britons are listed on their medical records as having suffered a reaction to penicillin, making it unsafe for them to take it to treat infections, ranging from a dental abscess to a throat infection or meningitis.

Yet the charity Antibiotic Research UK says that 95 per cent are not actually allergic.

Instead, many were labelled as such after developing borderline allergy-like symptoms – such as vomiting or a rash – when given the drug as an infant.

In many cases, studies show, the real cause of these symptoms was not the drug but a viral infection that was missed.

Around three million Britons are listed on their medical records as having suffered a reaction to penicillin, making it unsafe for them to take it to treat infections, ranging from a dental abscess to a throat infection or meningitis

Around three million Britons are listed on their medical records as having suffered a reaction to penicillin, making it unsafe for them to take it to treat infections, ranging from a dental abscess to a throat infection or meningitis

Even among those who do develop a genuine penicillin allergy early in life, about 80 per cent grow out of it within ten years, as their immune system becomes less sensitive to it.

Dynamic duos 

Nutrients that work best when consumed together. This week: Calcium and vitamin D

Adults need around 700mg of calcium a day to maintain bone strength, says dietitian Orli Rhodes. High levels are found in dairy, with smaller, but useful amounts in peanut butter, almonds, bread and dark green leafy veg. But to maximise calcium’s bone-boosting potential, your body also needs vitamin D to ensure it’s absorbed efficiently in the gut, she explains.

While most of our vitamin D comes from the effect of sunlight on the skin, ‘oily fish such as salmon, mackerel or sardines, egg yolk and mushrooms that have been exposed to UV light [e.g. Sainsbury’s Vitamin Enriched Super Mushrooms, 300g, £1.40,] are all good sources,’ says Ms Rhodes. Foods fortified with vitamin D such as some breakfast cereals and margarines ‘can also be helpful’.

Try: Cooked mushrooms on toast, or kale and mackerel.

The new test is significant, because patients who cannot currently take penicillin for infections are instead treated with a different class of medication – broad-spectrum antibiotics, including doxycycline and minocycline.

But these are generally less effective: research shows that patients prescribed them are more likely to end up in intensive care than those on penicillin. 

And because these broad-spectrum antibiotics target a wider range of organisms, they increase the risk of antibiotic resistance, and are linked with higher rates of potentially deadly hospital-acquired infection, such as MRSA and Clostridium difficile.

Existing methods to ascertain if someone has a genuine penicillin allergy are protracted and only take place in specialist allergy clinics in the UK, supervised by highly trained staff. 

Blood samples are taken to look for proteins (called immunoglobulin E) that indicate a penicillin allergy, followed by tests to see if exposure to the drug through the skin causes it to become inflamed.

In the final challenge, the patient swallows a small dose and doctors monitor them for any reaction for one to three hours afterwards.

But with only five full-time NHS allergy centres, testing millions of suspected penicillin allergies is not feasible.

A new U.S. study shows cutting out the blood and skin tests and going straight to the oral challenge not only saves time and resources, but is just as effective at identifying genuine allergies. 

Tiny tweaks 

Maintain friendships as you get older – it can protect your brain. A new study of around 900 over-50s found those who maintained a healthy social network preserved their brain structure over the six-year study, reports the journal eLife. By contrast, brain scans revealed those who were socially isolated had poorer cognitive performance and experienced shrinkage in a brain area called the hippocampus, which plays a crucial role in memory, and this may increase their chance of developing Alzheimer’s, the researchers said.

Researchers at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, recruited 382 adults with penicillin allergy, many of whom had experienced only a single reaction to the drug decades earlier in childhood.

They put half through the full range of tests and the rest went straight to taking a small dose before being monitored for any adverse reaction.

The results, published in JAMA Internal Medicine in July, showed that in both groups less than one per cent of volunteers reacted badly to penicillin — confirming they did have an allergy. The rest suffered no adverse reactions.

It’s claimed oral penicillin tests could be swiftly and cheaply introduced, administered by GPs or even pharmacists. 

Penicillin was one of the first life-saving antibiotics. It has benefited hundreds of millions of patients fighting infections, many of them children, since its discovery in 1928 by British scientist Dr Alexander Fleming.

Dr Neil Powell, a consultant antimicrobial pharmacist at the Royal Cornwall Hospitals NHS Trust, said some NHS hospitals are now starting to use oral testing by non-specialist staff to spot false penicillin allergies.

‘This kind of testing should be done more widely, because allergy services do not have the capacity to see these huge numbers: it can take months for patients to be seen,’ he adds.

Gas therapy may heal foot ulcers in diabetics 

Ozone gas is being used as a treatment to heal foot ulcers in diabetics.

Researchers from Indonesia’s Universitas Harapan Bangsa are treating patients for 30 minutes a day for 30 days as part of a trial.

Foot ulcers can be a problem for people with diabetes as the condition can damage nerves – causing loss of feeling – and reduce blood flow, starving ulcers of nutrients needed for healing.

Patients with diabetes have a ten- to 20-fold higher risk of foot amputation.

It’s not clear how ozone – which was used in World War I to treat gangrene in injured soldiers – works, but one theory is it has both anti-bacterial and antioxidant effects, which accelerate wound healing.

Going to the gym after work may harm your sleep, suggests a study by the Ministry of Health in Saudi Arabia. This showed that adults who exercised for more than 90 minutes in the evening have poorer sleep and feel less well-rested, reports the journal Cureus. The researchers suggested it disrupts the body’s sleep cycle and recommended leaving as much time as possible between exercise and sleep.

Bee ‘glue’ boost for men with embarrassing ailment 

Bee ‘glue’ might be an unlikely new aid for Peyronie’s disease, a build-up of scar tissue on the penis that causes it to curve, which is thought to affect up to 13 per cent of men.

Writing in the Journal of Medical Case Reports, doctors at Castelfidardo Clinical Analysis Centre in Italy describe how three patients treated with a cocktail of antioxidants that included propolis – a glue-like substance bees use to bind the hive together – and an anti-inflammatory gel (two men also had jabs of a drug that reduces scarring) were restored to normal, or nearly normal, by the end of the treatment.