Penicillin, you be illin'
October 2, 2008 2:54 PM   Subscribe

What are the lesser known dangers of penicillin that the pharmaceutical companies don't want you to know?

Hi all,

I've recently come down with a bad case of tonsillitis. Upon visiting the doctor for diagnosis and testing and whatnot, she had prescribed me penicillin VK and Tylenol. I'm not touching the Tylenol.

However, I DO want to get better sooner than later for a number of reasons. I never really take pharmaceutical drugs and so far I have mostly been making myself garlic soups and eating dark green veggies. I've tried looking online for the information that the pharma's DONT want you to know, but, as you can imagine, its hard to find.

So would there be any short/long term damage to my body by taking the antibiotic? I'm not allergic, and the only stuff I've read about talks about increased energy in people. I'm a bit of a naturopath, so information from that sphere would benefit me most.
posted by saxamo to Health & Fitness (21 answers total)
I think the premise of your question is a bit shaky. Penicillin is OLD tech in medical terms (ie, cheap and generic), so the drug companies have all sorts of incentive to tell you about it's dangers, so that you'll take one of their newer and more expensive antibiotics instead.
posted by nomisxid at 3:04 PM on October 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

I think your health would be better served by abandoning the conspiracy theory and taking the penicillin.

As to the dangers, included with the pill bottle will be an insert which lists every known potential adverse effect. The law requires them to do that.
posted by Class Goat at 3:09 PM on October 2, 2008

There really aren't any great penicillin secrets; it's been in widespread clinical use for over 60 years. Allergy is the main concern, and any large antibiotic doses are accompanied by a small risk of secondary infection (particularly yeast infection) brought on by the elimination of endogenous bacterial flora.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:12 PM on October 2, 2008

What are the lesser known dangers of penicillin that the pharmaceutical companies don't want you to know?

I too contest the premise, but for different reasons that are likely to be unpopular. Generally speaking, pharmaceutical companies have lots of incentives to warn you about drug dangers, and they do; the trick is figuring the odds of any of the dangers they describe. (Once in a while, of course, they screw up or lie.) Trying to make up for their deficiencies is interesting but likely to elicit all kinds of moonbat objections to the use of the drug, unfounded in science, which even if true are impossible to assess in terms of their probabilities.

Shorter version: penicillin may, even according to the arch-evil medical establishment, cause a ton of horrible side effects (including bloody diarrhea, fever, flu, bleeding, bladder problems, rashes, acute psychological distress, and convulsive seizures). You may be acutely allergic to it. But you will find it difficult to independently assess the likelihood of any of these events, and to compare it to the potential benefits, without relying heavily on the advice of your physician.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 3:15 PM on October 2, 2008

The penicillins are among the least toxic drugs known. They rarely elicit adverse reactions in humans unless present in excessive concentration. They can disrupt the normal gastrointestinal flora and cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, colitis, and anorexia. To minimize diarrhea it is recommended that penicillin be taken with two to three tablespoons of yogart, or a lactobacillum tablet. Fatal anaphylaxis is estimated to occur in one in 10,000 users. At high doses penicillin can have a toxic effect that can cause seizures, platelet dysfunction, hemolytic anemias of an immunologic type, encephalitis, and nephritis. Pseudomembraneous colitis is an occasional adverse reaction.
posted by jedicus at 3:16 PM on October 2, 2008

As for dangers, there is a danger if you don't take the whole course of antibiotics. If you do take the penicillin, PLEASE take all of the doses on the schedule given. This will make sure that you kill all of the bacteria and not just leave behind the more antibiotic-resistant ones behind, which will require treatment with more exotic antibiotics.

A naturopathic friend of mine died from a case of bacterial meningitis that would have been treatable with antibiotics. Do not screw around with bacterial infections.
posted by zsazsa at 3:16 PM on October 2, 2008 [3 favorites]

Yeah, there's almost no incentive for them to hide things about penicillin anymore, since it's been around for so long. Do take the full course - every single pill (unless you show an allergic reaction) - even if you start to feel better halfway through the course. You don't want to contribute to resistant bugs.
posted by rtha at 3:19 PM on October 2, 2008

For one potential issue, google antibiotic-associated colitis.

I've also heard about the risk of secondary infections (like yeast infection) that mr_roboto mentions; some people eat yogurt with active cultures in order to counteract some of the killing of the "good" bacteria.

Also, if you're female and on hormonal birth control, you should look into using backup birth control methods -- antibiotics reduce the efficacy of some hormonal birth control.
posted by xo at 3:19 PM on October 2, 2008

If it makes you feel more comfortable about using the penicillin, consider that it is, in fact, a natural product - the by-product of a fungus. That it was first observed in a petri dish rather than in a forest doesn't make it any less natural.
posted by bettafish at 3:21 PM on October 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Sure there is a whole range of nasty complications you can get from penicillin, as with any other medication. No one's hiding it.

"Although reactions have been reported much less frequently after oral than after parenteral penicillin therapy, it should be remembered that all degrees of hypersensitivity, including fatal anaphylaxis, have been observed with oral penicillin.

The most common reactions to oral penicillin are nausea, vomiting, epigastric distress, diarrhea, and black, hairy tongue. The hypersensitivity reactions noted are skin eruptions (ranging from maculopapular to exfoliative dermatitis); urticaria; reactions resembling serum sickness, including chills, fever, edema, arthralgia, and prostration; laryngeal edema; and anaphylaxis. Fever and eosinophilia may frequently be the only reactions observed. Hemolytic anemia, leukopenia, thrombocytopenia, neuropathy, and nephropathy are infrequent reactions and are usually associated with high doses of parenteral penicillin."

Unfortunately there is no data provided on the incidence of these effects, I'm sure some time poking around on pubmed. I looked at the abstracts of a few papers and none mentioned significant patient dropout treating tonsillitis with pencillin.

The complications of untreated tonsillitis don't seem pretty, I would argue the likely hood of serious harm to your health is greater from not treating the tonsillitis than the likely hood of an adverse reaction to pencillin.
posted by zentrification at 3:22 PM on October 2, 2008

Antibiotics tend to kill off symbiotic bacteria (like those in your gut that help digestion), so your stomach will get upset easily. This is not permanent.

Note that it is important to see your prescription through to the end once you start, even though you'll feel better in one or two days --- doing this stifles the evolution of "super bugs"

And 2nd Class Goat: The conspiracy theory is silly. Penicillin is natural. The fact that you're getting it from a pharmacy instead of from a lump of mold means that you're getting a precisely measured dose without contaminants.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 3:32 PM on October 2, 2008

What are the lesser known dangers of penicillin that the pharmaceutical companies don't want you to know?

Penicillin is a bacterial toxin made naturally by a common strain of mold called Penicillium. If you've ever eaten bread, you've consumed penicillin at some point in your life, as nearly all bread has some level of different species of mold in it.

A danger of you using penicillin to treat your infection is that there is a chance that some of the bacteria causing your infection will evolve resistance, which makes it harder for penicillin to help treat infections in other people.

The dirty, hidden secret that pharmaceutical companies don't want you to know is that antibiotics have worked so well for curing bacterial infections that they have been overprescribed, and now antibiotics don't generally work as well as they used to, in all cases.

So pharmaceutical companies would be happy to sell you antibiotics, but to protect their profit margins they would probably prefer that you not actually use it, so that you don't help speed up the process at which their product will become unusable for and unsell-able to everyone.

Other than side effects, reactions or interactions with any other drugs you might be taking that your doctor will have already warned you about, there's no rational reason not to take the medicine you've been prescribed, unless you don't want to get better.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:34 PM on October 2, 2008

Take the penicillin. Supplement with probiotics (yogurt with active cultures may be sufficient, otherwise get acidophilus capsules) to counteract potential upset of your gastrointestinal flora.
posted by scody at 3:38 PM on October 2, 2008

Stevens-Johnson Syndrome.

Quite rare (300 cases/year). But quite nasty. I do not recommend a Google image search.
posted by Punctual at 3:49 PM on October 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

"So would there be any short/long term damage to my body by taking the antibiotic?"

No. Nothing you don't already know about unless you've been living under a rock for the last 80 years. Take the pills. There's no evil conspiracy out there trying to poison you with a tried and true medication.
posted by majick at 3:53 PM on October 2, 2008

I generally don't take antibiotics for trivial infections myself, but, in my opinion, the risk from this infection could reasonably outweigh concerns about the drug used to treat it.
If you like anecdotes, a friend of mine spent several days in the hospital (and thousands of dollars) after she developed a tonsillar abscess.
posted by pullayup at 6:00 PM on October 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

You don't want to mess around with infections that close to your airway. Mr. F developed an acute epiglottal infection once and got to sit on his butt in the hospital on IV antibiotics...

...with the tracheotomy kit at the end of the bed, just in case.

Compared to that, pencillin's pretty tame. I'm allergic, myself, but bacterial infections usually just get worse if you don't look after them with antibiotics.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 6:12 PM on October 2, 2008

Thanks everyone. It seems like I will take the pills. I got what I was looking for in the bit about messing with the cultures in your digestive system. I guess I should have added the buzzword "holistic" in the question. I will take yogurt culture or even some of my fresh kimchi.

To all the haters, boo on you! I'm not a conspirator, I just want to be fully educated about what goes into my body.

Thanks again hivemind!
posted by saxamo at 6:14 PM on October 2, 2008

I've recently discovered the wonders of eating the rind on camembert. It's a penicillium---and it's awesome. I secretly believe it holds (err...will hold) the key to my longevity.
posted by TomMelee at 7:52 PM on October 2, 2008

When I took Penicillin I got Candida albicans, which is quite common when people take Penicillin. That's why yoghurt (acidophilus) is recommended after the Penicillin course has been completed. I had to take Nystatin oral suspension for the candida.

I recommend gargling with Alkalol (less than $5 and very effective, available at the drug store over the counter)

Check out olive leaf extract.
posted by nickyskye at 9:34 PM on October 2, 2008

The drug companies want you to know every negative thing about the drugs they make, so you can't sue them for hiding it from you (or from your doctor, as such suits play out in practice.)

Penicillin is one of the greatest drugs known. It has probably saved more lives than any other drug. Jedicus summarized the adverse effects well. Consider this: penicillin's seizure-generating property is quite useful; it has been used for decades to create an animal model of epilepsy in which to test potential anti-convulsant drugs.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:21 PM on October 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

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