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What is Cross Sensitivity?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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When doctors prescribe drugs and pharmacists fill them, one thing both groups are interested in is the type of sensitivities or allergic reactions people have had to other drugs. Knowing this helps to avoid the specific medicines that have caused problems in the past. From another perspective, having this information is equally important. Sometimes sensitivity to one specific drug means possible reaction to other specific drugs; this is called cross sensitivity.

It would be nearly impossible to list all of the drugs that may provoke cross sensitivity reactions. Some people who display sensitized reactions to medications like non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may have trouble taking any drug that belongs to that class. A person who cannot take ibuprofen, might not tolerate naproxen sodium (Aleve®) or medications like Vioxx®. Since most reactions to NSAIDs are not usually anaphylactic, doctors might still try giving another NSAID if necessary, but they could try other medications first to avoid causing cross sensitivity.

Similar issues exist with certain antidepressants, especially when the medications are closely related to each other. Other people can’t take some types of antibiotics if they’ve shown sensitivity to one antibiotic that belongs in that group. Many people, for instance, cannot take any form of Sulfa antibiotic, and this would include medications like Bactrim® and Septra®.

One of the classic examples of cross sensitivity is penicillin. Those allergic to penicillin must not take certain antibiotics for fear of provoking a life-threatening reaction. These medications include but are not limited to amoxicillin, augmentin, which contains amoxicillin, ampicillin, oxacillin, and others. Sometimes, people allergic to penicillin also have allergic reactions to antibiotics called cephalosporins, though new research on this suggests that the likelihood of reaction is about 10%. Cephalosporins include the medications Keflex® and Ceclor®.

The reason cross sensitivity usually occurs is because drugs are often created from each other. They may contain some of the same ingredients, possess a similar chemical structure or be made in a way that is very similar. The idea is that closely related substances are more likely to provoke an allergic or immune response reaction, and it is thus dangerous to risk this, unless there are no other options.

This could be compared to nut allergies. Walnuts and pecans aren’t the same, but if a person is allergic to one type he could be allergic to both because they are similar. Additionally, virtually any nut would have to be suspect as having the potential to trigger an allergic reaction. Thus it would be safer to avoid all of them.

What the idea of cross sensitivity means for the average person may vary. When physicians prescribe medications, they normally have a listing, frequently on their computer, that tells them what they can’t prescribe based on sensitivities. This suggests that people really need to keep a record of what drugs they have had reactions to in the past. Severe allergic reactions like those to penicillin might need additional care. Wearing an emergency bracelet that lists extreme allergies could be useful if a person is ever in a position where he/she can’t give this information by speaking.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By Telsyst — On Feb 12, 2014
These systems are also being designed to help combat drug abuse and overdose.

Many of the databases you mention, Certlerant, allow a doctor's office or pharmacy to see when a patient was last prescribed a particular drug and in what dosage and pill count.

This makes it much more difficult for those who may abuse or sell drugs like prescription painkillers to get prescriptions from several different doctors of hospitals in a short time.

By Certlerant — On Feb 11, 2014
In a day and age when most people see and are prescribed medications by more than one doctor, the need to establish a database of each patient's drug and allergy information for use by all doctors, hospitals and pharmacies is growing.

That is why many hospitals and doctor's offices that operate within the same health system assign universal patient accounts. One scan of a bar code on a prescription bottle or a card provided by the health system makes vital allergy and drug counter-indication information available in an instant to all potential healthcare providers.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia...
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