Drug Side Effects Are Leading Cause of Fatal Allergic Reactions: Study

The findings of a recent report indicate that medications are the leading cause of fatal allergic reactions in the United States, accounting for nearly 60% of all allergy deaths, greatly exceeding those associated with bug bites, food allergies and other causes. 

The study was published this month in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, finding that drug-induced allergic reactions that resulted in death may have doubled between 1999 and 2010, with antibiotics most commonly identified as the cause of the problems.

Researchers used data from the National Center for Health statistics, identifying 2,458 cases of fatal anaphylaxis during the 12 year time frame examined. At least 1,446 of the deaths were caused by allergic reactions to drugs, with antibiotics identified in about half of the cases where a specific drug was known.

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Following antibiotics, radio-contrast agents used during diagnostic imaging tests were the next most common drug associated with deadly allergic reactions, followed by chemotherapy medications used to treat cancer.

“We are using more imaging studies than other countries, and they’re potentially life-threatening,” said Dr. Elina Jerschow, assistant professor of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. “After antibiotics, radio-contrast was the chief culprit.”

Bug bites or insect venom caused 15 percent of anaphylaxis fatalities and allergic reactions to food comprised only seven percent of deaths. In one-fifth of the cases no cause was recorded.

The study also found older age was associated with a higher risk of death after suffering anaphylaxis from drug side effects.

African-Americans also had a higher risk of dying from a drug or food related reaction, while Caucasians were three times more likely to have a fatal reaction to insect stings.

Anaphylaxis is a life threatening emergency which results from an allergic reaction. An injection of epinephrine is required to help reverse the onset of symptoms.

The United States and Australia have some of the highest rates of anaphylaxis among developed countries.

Jerschow said the increase is attributed in part to changes in the way deaths are coded on death certificates. Otherwise, increases in medication use and more tests being conducted with contrast dye to receive more accurate diagnoses are primarily to blame, the researchers claim.

There is currently no national registry for tracking anaphylaxis deaths in the United States.

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