My misery after doctors misdiagnosed a penicillin allergy

Peter Gibson ANTRUK announcements

Professional charity fundraiser Helen Osment endured the trauma of hospitalisation and a nasty brush with sepsis.
The 34-year-old was wrongly diagnosed with a penicillin allergy as a child and was subjected to a myriad of heavy-duty antibiotics which had crippling side effects and led to bacteria in her body becoming resistant to the drugs.

“I was six years old when I was diagnosed with a penicillin allergy. I had developed a lumpy rash on my skin after taking the drugs for a throat infection and 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, 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 and 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 then encountered the issue of antibiotic resistance again in 2018 when I was 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 left me with few options. The alternative that was previously prescribed was no longer effective due to resistance, so a different antibiotic was given, and thankfully my baby was born healthy. We stayed in hospital for a couple of nights for observation but were both well and 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, extreme shivering and fever. 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. I was still feverish and the lump in my breast was getting bigger, harder and redder, and 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 as I had developed sepsis from the infection, which had formed a huge abscess by then. I was kept in hospital for two nights and put on “heavy duty” intravenous antibiotics.

I was extremely lucky that they caught the sepsis relatively early and I started to feel much better the following day once I was on the right antibiotic. 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 as I became fixated on the side effects of antibiotics and these affecting my son throughbreastfeeding. I was also worried about becoming ill again and unable to take care of my baby, or the baby becoming poorly because of me.
I then underwent a penicillin allergy testing at a health centre in December 2018 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, but of course, am acutely aware that resistance to penicillin is also a huge issue.

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 https://www.antibioticresearch.org.uk/find-support/