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Drug Allergies - Topic Overview

How is a drug allergy diagnosed?

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 exam.

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.

How is it treated?

If you have a reaction

Call 911 right away if you have signs of a severe allergic reaction, such as trouble breathing, having hives all over your body, or feeling faint.

You may need an epinephrine shot to help you breathe. In the emergency room you may also get medicines, such as antihistamines and steroid medicines.

Call your doctor right away if you have hives, itching, swelling, belly pain, nausea, or vomiting after you take a medicine.

If you have a mild allergic reaction, 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.

Other treatment

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 medicine.

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.

Staying safe

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.

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