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Skin Allergies to Drugs

Cutaneous drug reactions are adverse responses to drugs that appear on the skin. A red, itchy rash and hives are the most common reactions, however there are many different types, and some are life-threatening. Drugs that most frequently cause problems include sulfa drugs, antibiotics such as penicillins and tetracyclines, and phenytoin (a drug that prevents convulsions).

Signs and Symptoms

bulletRed, itchy rash or blotches
bulletAcne-like eruptions
bulletPigmentation changes (may appear as brown or grey blotches)
bulletDry, cracked skin, as in eczema
bulletPeeling skin
bulletTissue death (necrosis)


What Causes It?

Some drugs that might cause cutaneous reactions include the following.


bulletAllopurinol (gout medication)
bulletAntibiotics (penicillins, tetracyclines)
bulletChemotherapeutic agents (cancer treatments)
bulletCortisones and other steroids
bulletDiuretics (water pills)
bulletHeavy metals (gold, copper)
bulletNonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
bulletPhenothiazines (antihistamines and sedatives)


What to Expect at Your Provider's Office

Your health care provider will examine your skin, mouth, and throat. He or she will ask you to list the drugs (prescription, nonprescription, and illegal) and herbal and vitamin supplements you've taken over the last four weeks. Your provider may have you stop taking the suspected drug and prescribe something else.

Treatment Options

Treatment Plan

Choice of treatment depends on the type of reaction you are having and how serious it is. Often symptoms disappear once you stop taking the suspected drug. However, your health care provider may still need to prescribe drugs to stop the reaction. If you also have life-threatening symptoms, such as trouble breathing, you will be hospitalized until you are stable.

Drug Therapies



bulletCorticosteroids—intravenously for severe reactions; topical ointment for skin sores
bulletAntihistamine—relieves itching
bulletEpinephrine—for severe reactions that involve the respiratory or cardiovascular systems


Over the Counter


bulletTopical ointments—relieve itching and foster healing


Complementary and Alternative Therapies

Mild to moderate reactions may be safely and effectively treated with alternative therapies.



bulletVitamin C (1,000 mg three to four times per day) stabilizes certain types of skin cells and stops reactions.
bulletB complex with extra B12 (1,000 mcg per day) aids in skin health.
bulletVitamin E (400 to 800 IU per day) improves circulation to your skin.
bulletZinc (30 to 50 mg per day) supports the immune system.
bulletBromelain (125 to 250 mg two to three times per day) reduces inflammation.
bulletMagnesium (400 to 800 mg per day) may help prevent spasms in the bronchial passages.



Herbs may be used as dried extracts (capsules, powders, teas), glycerites (glycerine extracts), or tinctures (alcohol extracts). Unless otherwise indicated, teas should be made with 1 tsp. herb per cup of hot water. Steep covered 5 to 10 minutes for leaf or flowers, and 10 to 20 minutes for roots. Drink 2 to 4 cups per day. Tinctures may be used singly or in combination as noted.


bulletTurmeric (Curcuma longa, 100 mg two to three times per day)
bulletQuercetin (up to 1,000 mg three times per day)
bulletHesperidin (200 mg three to four times per day)


An infusion of equal parts of coneflower (Echinacea augustifolia), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), chamomile (Matricaria recutita), peppermint (Mentha piperita), and red clover (Trifolium pratense) will strengthen your immune system, reduce swelling, and help with lymph drainage (fluid that is part of immune system).

To relieve itching, use one or more of the following herbs brewed as a tea, 1 tsp. of herb per cup of water: peppermint (Mentha piperata), chickweed (Stellaria media), or chamomile (Matricaria recutita). Be sure the tea is cool, and apply to the affected area as needed. To help your skin heal, add one or more of the following: marigold (Calendula officinalis), comfrey (Symphytum officinale), or coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia).

For open sores use powdered slippery elm (Ulmus fulva), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), and marshmallow root (Althea officinale). Add enough skin wash to make a paste. Apply to affected area as needed.

Aloe vera gel applied to your skin can soothe burning and reduce swelling. For further skin relief, add powdered oatmeal (or 1 cup of oatmeal in a sock) to a lukewarm bath. Or, make a skin balm from flaxseed oil (2 tbsp.) plain or with 5 drops of oil of chamomile (Matricaria recutita) or marigold (Calendula officinalis).


Some of the most common remedies used for cutaneous drug reactions are listed below. Usually, the dose is 12X to 30C every one to four hours until your symptoms get better.


bulletApis for acute swelling with burning pains that are relieved by cold applications
bulletGraphites for eczema or urticaria (hives) with tremendous itching
bulletLedum for cellulitis or eczema with severe inflammation
bulletRhus tox for burning and itching that are relieved by hot applications
bulletUrtica urens for burning and itching


Following Up

It is important to stay in touch with your health care provider until the reaction is completely cleared up. If you have severe reactions, wear medical-alert jewelry stating what drugs you are allergic to.

Special Considerations

If you have any questions about any drug—whether it is prescribed by your health care provider or purchased over the counter—ask your pharmacist or health care provider.

Supporting Research

American Academy of Dermatology. Guidelines of care for cutaneous adverse drug reactions. J Am Acad Dermatol. 1996;35:458-461. Available at

Balch JF, Balch PA. Prescription for Nutritional Healing. 2nd ed. Garden City Park, NY: Avery Publishing Group; 1997.

Dambro MR, ed. Griffith's 5 Minute Clinical Consult. Baltimore, Md: Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins; 1998.

Fauci AS, Braunwald E, Isselbacher KJ et al, eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine. 14th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 1998.

Morrison R. Desktop Guide to Keynotes and Confirmatory Symptoms. Albany, Calif: Hahnemann Clinic Publishing; 1993.

Murray MT, Pizzorno JE. Encyclopedia of Natural Medicines. 2nd ed. Rocklin, Calif: Prima Publishing; 1998.