Helen who had been misdiagnosed a penicillin allergy

My misery after doctors misdiagnosed a penicillin allergy

Peter Gibson ANTRUK announcements

Helen who had been misdiagnosed a penicillin allergyProfessional charity fundraiser Helen Osment endured the trauma of hospitalisation and a nasty brush with sepsis.

The 34-year-old was misdiagnosed with a penicillin allergy as a child. She was subjected to a myriad of heavy-duty antibiotics which had crippling side effects. Antibiotic use led to bacteria in her body becoming resistant to the drugs.

“I was six years old when I was misdiagnosed with a penicillin allergy. I had developed a lumpy rash on my skin after taking the drugs for a throat infection. Because my mother had the allergy, doctors assumed that I did, too.

Like many people, I had the usual urinary tract (UTI) and chest infections which meant I needed antibiotics. But the drugs given to me were broad-spectrum and strong.

Adverse reaction

I had my first encounter with an antibiotic resistant infection in 2013. I had a particularly nasty UTI and was prescribed three days of nitrofurantoin which didn’t work. That was followed by trimethoprim which had worked in the past but didn’t this time. I was in a lot of pain and had missed numerous days at work so went to the GP to ask for something “stronger” to beat the infection.

My GP prescribed ciprofloxacin. Reading about the side effects in the patient information leaflet worried me. During the night I had heart palpitations, felt sick and sweaty, had awful stomach cramps and felt a lot of pain in my knee. The antibiotic wasn’t agreeing with me and so I went to the walk-in centre at the local hospital. I submitted a urine sample and they told me to stop taking the ciprofloxacin and instead prescribed a longer course of nitrofurantoin.

My knee pain continued, and it turned out that I’d probably developed tendonitis as a side effect of an antibiotic. I developed health anxiety as my symptoms weren’t going away. I was given medication for this as well as more antibiotics. Subsequent UTI tests came back clear, but I was told the infection had caused a lot of inflammation and had probably damaged the bladder wall, so it might take a while to settle.

No pregnant pause

I encountered the issue of antibiotic resistance again in 2018 while pregnant. I tested positive for Group B Streptococcus and was offered prophylactic intravenous antibiotics during labour, as these bacteria can cause illness in a new-born. My penicillin allergic status and other antibiotic resistance left me with few options. Thankfully, my baby was born healthy. We stayed in hospital for a couple of nights for observation but were both well. We left hospital as a new family of three, blissfully happy, exhausted and looking forward to our new lives as parents.

When my baby was six weeks old, I developed mastitis, an infection of the breast tissue resulting in pain, swelling, warmth and redness. I was reluctant to take antibiotics unless absolutely necessary but soon developed flu-type symptoms. An out-of-hours GP prescribed an oral antibiotic but two days later, I was still getting worse. I was in so much pain as it radiated across my chest and down my arm that I could barely hold my baby. Still feverish, the lump in my breast was getting bigger, harder and redder. I started vomiting. The pain was actually worse than childbirth. My GP sent me straight to A&E, where I received IV fluids and an antibiotic straight away. I developed sepsis from the infection, which had formed a huge abscess by then. They kept me in hospital for two nights on “heavy duty” intravenous antibiotics.

I was extremely lucky that they caught the sepsis relatively early. Once on the right antibiotic, I started to feel much better the following day. The hospital staff found me a private room on the gynaecological ward and let me keep my baby with me, as I didn’t want to be separated from him.

Testing the allergy prognosis

With hindsight, I can see that the whole experience triggered post-birth anxiety. I became fixated on the side effects of antibiotics and these affecting my son through breastfeeding. I was also worried about becoming ill again and unable to take care of my baby, or the baby becoming poorly because of me.

In December 2018 I underwent a penicillin allergy testing at a health centre where I was given a skin test and then a “challenge” dose of penicillin while observed closely. I was sent home with a short course to take, along with an antihistamine and steroids in case a reaction occurred. Happily, it transpired that I was either not allergic or had outgrown the penicillin allergy. The allergy note has now been removed from my record. I feel very relieved that I now have more antibiotic options available to me in future if required. Of course, I am acutely aware that resistance to penicillin is also a huge issue.

A misdiagnosed a penicillin allergy is very common. I had no idea that nine out of ten people diagnosed with a penicillin allergy actually don’t have one at all. If only I had known this. Also, I wish that Antibiotic Research UK’s Patient Support programme had been around at the time of my visits to hospital. I am sure it would have given me the knowledge and reassurance that I needed. My advice for anyone going through what I did is contact your GP and make sure you really have a penicillin allergy. Do not suffer in silence.”

To contact the pharmacists and infection control experts from the Patient Support team, telephone 07367 784114, email patient.support@antibioticresearch.org.uk or visit our support pages.