Drug Allergies – When Medication Can Make You Ill

August 18, 2015 Brigham and Women's Hospital

Drug allergies can lead to hives, respiratory problems, and swelling.

On October 7, 2015, the public is invited to Discover Brigham, an event that will highlight the cutting-edge biomedical investigations of more than 3,000 researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH). Topics include advances in sleep medicine, trauma care, surgery, and more. Today’s blog post previews the session on drug allergies.

Most of us can successfully take medications without problems. In some cases, however, our immune system reacts as if the drug is a threat, causing symptoms that may force us to discontinue treatment or avoid certain medications.

According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, the most frequent types of allergic reactions to medications are skin rashes (particularly hives), itching, respiratory problems, and swelling, such as in the face. Anaphylaxis, a particularly severe allergic response, can be fatal if untreated.

Mariana Castells, MD, PhD, Tanya Laidlaw, MD, and Paige Wickner, MD, MPH, from the BWH Division of Rheumatology, Immunology and Allergy, will discuss their research on drug allergies at Discover Brigham. Here’s a preview of their presentations:

Dr. Castells’ research focuses on adverse reactions to antibiotics, chemotherapy, and monoclonal antibodies. Her laboratory has studied how to reduce the immune response in patients who are sensitized to these classes of medications. Based on her work, women with ovarian and breast cancer; patients with chronic inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis; and children with cystic fibrosis have been desensitized to their medications.

“Patients with severe hypersensitivity reactions, including anaphylaxis, used to be told by their own doctors they could no longer safely be treated with their best medications,” explains Dr. Castells. “These patients are now referred to us for desensitization, allowing them to resume treatment.”

Dr. Laidlaw’s research focuses on treatments and desensitization options for patients with aspirin-exacerbated respiratory disease (AERD).

“Up until now, our only advice to patients with drug allergies has been to avoid the drugs they are allergic to,” says Dr. Laidlaw. “We are now pushing the field forward and making real progress to help treat these patients, and allow them to safely take medications that they previously thought were too dangerous to try.”

Watch a video with Dr. Laidlaw discussing AERD and her research.

Dr. Wickner’s research centers on the role of electronic health records in communicating information about patient drug allergies.

“With universally mandated electronic health records, listed drug allergies can impact the quality, safety, and cost of patient prescriptions,” says Dr. Wickner. “We assess different methods to clarify these listed drug allergies in order to safely prescribe medications, especially antibiotics, for the optimal care of the patient.”

To find out more, please join us at Discover Brigham on October 7, 2015, for a day full of discovery, innovation, and science. If you can’t attend, you can still participate by voting for the winner of the BRIght Futures Prize and the Stepping Strong Innovator Awards. The winner of each competition will receive a $100,000 prize to advance the future of medicine.

- Jamie R. 
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