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Stevens Johnson Syndrome: When the Side Effects Are Worse Than the Disease

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Louisville, KYIt’s the sort of situation that no one expects will happen to them: suffering a medication side effect like Stevens Johnson Syndrome that is much worse than the condition the medication was treating. But as patients who have suffered this serious Zithromax side effect can confirm, in most cases, Stevens Johnson Syndrome (SJS) is a million times worse than what they were attempting to treat.

Stevens Johnson Syndrome is an allergic reaction to medication, but it can arise at any time to medication that was previously tolerated. It can also arise in reaction to medications used to treat fairly minor conditions, such as minor infections. In the case of Zithromax, patients may have taken the drug to treat respiratory infections, skin infections and middle ear infections.

Worse, some patients are reportedly being given prescriptions for drugs with a risk of SJS even when other drugs are the preferred method of treatment. One study, published online in JAMA Internal Medicine (10/3/13), found that even though penicillin is the preferred method of treating certain infections - due to low cost and universal effectiveness for group A Streptococcus infection - the use of penicillin has declined in the past 15 years, while the use of azithromycin (generic name for Zithromax) has increased.

Not all conditions that drugs linked to SJS are used to treat are minor. Stevens Johnson Syndrome has been linked to drugs used to treat epilepsy and, as with Zithromax, pneumonia. Still, given the horrifying ordeal patients who develop SJS endure, there is not much worse than the potentially fatal allergic reaction.

That’s because SJS and its more severe form, toxic epidermal necrolysis (TENS), involves the patient’s skin sloughing off as though the patient had suffered burns all over his or her body. Often the internal organs suffer damage from burning, and the patient may be left with severe scarring, permanent vision problems, damage to tear ducts causing eyes to dry out, respiratory problems and loss of hair.

Patients who develop SJS are typically treated in burn units in hospitals because of the risk of infection due to the loss of skin.

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