How Does Penicillin Help with Infections?

How Does Penicillin Help with Infections?

If you’ve ever taken a medication like Augmentin, amoxicillin, or ampicillin, you’ve had penicillin. These are just a few examples of drugs classified as penicillins. Doctors use these highly effective medications to treat existing bacterial infections and prevent them from developing.

It isn’t an exaggeration to say that the discovery of penicillin in the late 1920s ushered in a new age of medicine. Until that moment, there were no effective treatments for bacterial infections, ranging from ear infections and strep throat to tuberculosis, pneumonia, and meningitis. What makes it even more stunning is that Alexander Fleming discovered the drug by accident. 

At the time, they hailed penicillin as a “miracle drug,” and it certainly did go on to save millions of lives and treat numerous infectious diseases. But how does it work, and why do so many people think they have a penicillin allergy?

Our team at Advanced Allergy & Asthma in Ogden, Utah, shared these insights into this “miracle drug” and the confusion around penicillin allergies.

Penicillin 101

Penicillin comes from the Penicillium fungi. However, we have to start with bacterial infections to understand how it works.

Bacteria are living organisms containing a single cell. Under magnification, they can appear round like a ball or in a rod or spiral shape. They’re also unbelievably small — a line of 1,000 bacteria is approximately 5 millimeters long, or the width of a pencil eraser.

There are several kinds of bacteria, including many beneficial strains that won’t make you sick. However, there are also infectious forms that reproduce quickly in your body and trigger an adverse reaction. These types of bacteria include strains like E. coli, Staphylococcus, and Streptococcus. 

When infectious bacteria divide in your body to multiply, small holes appear in their cell walls. That’s where penicillin comes in. It blocks the bacterium’s ability to fill these holes — specifically by preventing them from synthesizing peptidoglycan.

Without this molecule, the cell structure weakens, water rushes in, and causes the bacterium to burst.

The confusion around penicillin allergies

Penicillin has saved countless people, but it can also cause adverse reactions, including allergies. However, while approximately 10% of the population reports having a penicillin allergy, fewer than 1 in 10 of them have a true problem. 

There are three primary reasons people mistakenly think they have a penicillin allergy. 

1. They had adverse side effects

Penicillin may be a safe and highly effective drug, but it can still cause side effects. These medications can cause a variety of adverse symptoms while fighting infection, including:

However, having side effects from medication doesn’t mean you have an allergy.

2. They were allergic to something else

Believe it or not, the conditions doctors use penicillin for can cause allergy-like symptoms. For example, upper respiratory infections often cause rashes in children. As a result, it’s easy to assume the rash you get while taking penicillin came from the medication when it was a symptom of your illness.

3. They had an allergic reaction in the past

Even if you had a true penicillin allergy at some point, 80% of people lose their sensitivity to the medication after ten years — meaning they are no longer allergic.

Fortunately, our team can help determine if you have a true penicillin allergy or not. We usually do this by discussing your personal history and previous reactions and performing a penicillin skin test.

To learn more about penicillin allergies and testing, contact our Advanced Allergy & Asthma location nearest you in Ogden, Utah, by calling or booking online today.

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