What Does the Antibiotic Zithromax Do?

Zithromax treats many types of bacterial infections.

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Molecular Structure of Azithromycin. Getty Images

Zithromax is a versatile antibiotic used to treat many types of infections, including skin infections, ear infections, respiratory infections, and sexually transmitted infections. It is available as a pill or injection.

Mechanism

The antibiotic Zithromax (azithromycin) is derived from erythromycin, another type of antibiotic. Although both "macrolides," technically Zithromax is an azalide, and erythromycin is a macrolide.

In chemical terms, Zithromax shares the exact same lactose-macrolide structure as erythromycin save for the injection of a methylated nitrogen in the lactone ring.  

This small difference tweaks the bacterial coverage of Zithromax and curiously changes its route of metabolism. Whereas erythromycin is metabolized by the cytochrome P450 system, Zithromax isn't. Thus, Zithromax interacts with few drugs, and unlike erythromycin, won't have a drug-drug interaction with a statin (e.g., Zocor or Crestor).

Like the other macrolides—erythromycin and clarithromycin—Zithromax works by binding to the bacteria 50S ribosomal subunit thus interfering with the bacteria's ability to produce proteins. Bacteria need to produce proteins to survive. (Depending on the dosage, macrolides can be either bacteriostatic or bacteriocidal.)

Coverage

Here are some of the bacteria that Zithromax fights:

  • Mycobacterium avium complex (MAC)
  • Toxoplasmosis gondii
  • Haemophilus influenza
  • Streptococcus and staphylococcus (slightly less active than erythromycin)
  • Helicobacter
  • Moraxella catarrhalis
  • Borrelia burgdorferi
  • Chlamydia

Here are some clinical uses for Zithromax:

  • Respiratory tract infections
  • Skin and other soft-tissue infections
  • Acute bacterial exacerbations of COPD
  • Otitis media
  • Community-acquired pneumonia
  • Bacterial conjunctivitis (eye infection)
  • Mycobacterium avium complex or MAC (an opportunistic respiratory infection common with AIDS)
  • Chancroid
  • Pharyngitis
  • Tonsillitis
  • Chlamydial cervicitis and urethritis (sexually transmitted infection)

It should be noted that high levels of antibiotic resistance make Zithromax a poor choice for treating certain infections like community-acquired pneumonia, otitis media (ear infection) and acute sinusitis. Of particular note, Zithromax is ineffective in combating infections caused by MRSA, a superbug with broad antibacterial resistance.

Depending on the route of administration, Zithromax is available in tablets, oral suspensions, injections, and ophthalmic solutions.

Although unable to cross the blood-brain barrier (and treat meningitis), Zithromax deeply prevades our tissue. This drug is also slowly released into systemic circulation and has a half-life of about 48 hours. These amenable pharmacokinetic properties enable clinicians to administer the drug more infrequently.(Half-life refers to the time it takes for the concentration of drug in the blood to decrease by half. If the half-life is 48 hours, then 48 hours after administration, half the drug will have cleared from the blood.)

With respect to cervicitis and urethritis caused by infection with chlamydia, a single dose (injection) of Zithromax is equally effective as a seven-day course of doxycycline, therefore, limiting medication nonadherence.  (The CDC recommends that clinicians treat gonorrhea and chlamydia together, so-called "dual" therapy.  Therefore, a clinician typically prescribes a shot of the cephalosporin Rocephin to treat for possible gonorrhea, too.) Please note that it's at your physician's discretion whether to treat you with Zithromycin and at what dosage. If interested, please discuss such treatment with your physician.

Adverse Effects

Although not as severe as erythromycin, Zithromycin can also cause gastrointestinal distress like nausea or vomiting. These unwanted side effects can be mitigated by eating some food before you take an oral dose of Zithromycin.

A Word From Verywell

If you or a loved one has heart disease, it may be a good idea to avoid Zithromycin. This drug is known to cause QT-prolongation, arrhythmia, and sudden death. Of note, QT-prolongation interferes with hearth rhythms.

The nice thing about Zithromycin is that its long half-life and fewer doses limit nonadherence.  For example, one dose of this drug taken in a physician's office is a complete treatment; whereas, if you must take doxycycline on your own for a week, you may forget or quit.

Nevertheless, when prescribed Zithromycin for respiratory infections, throat infection and so forth, it's incumbent on us to see treatment through. When we fail to complete treatment and complete killing bacteria in our body, resistant bacteria survives and spreads--infecting others, recombining, and conferring resistance to other bacteria.

Please remember that by skipping out on antibiotic treatment, we contribute to antibiotic resistance, which is a global problem. The battle against antibiotic resistance is one of continuous ebb and flow, with many of our earlier medical victories washed away. We must all do our best to combat antibiotic resistance. 

Sources

Deck DH, Winston LG. Chapter 44. Tetracyclines, Macrolides, Clindamycin, Chloramphenicol, Streptogramins, & Oxazolidinones. In: Katzung BG, Masters SB, Trevor AJ. eds. Basic & Clinical Pharmacology, 12e. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2012.

Mosby's Drug Reference for Health Professionals, Second Edition published by Elsevier in 2010.

O'Donnell MR, Saukkonen JJ. Chapter 168. Antimycobacterial Agents. In: Longo DL, Fauci AS, Kasper DL, Hauser SL, Jameson J, Loscalzo J. eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 18e. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2012.

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