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What is Erythromycin?

By A. Gabrenas
Updated May 17, 2024
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Erythromycin is a type of prescription antibiotic. It falls into a class of drugs known as macrolide antibiotics. It may be used to help treat a variety of bacterial infections, including certain sexually transmitted infections as well as upper respiratory and skin infections. In some cases, it may also be used to help prevent certain infections. Health care providers generally warn patients about several possible side effects of erythromycin and may recommend against its use in certain individuals.

As a macrolide antibiotic, erythromycin helps fight bacteria by affecting the production of a special protein certain bacteria use to multiply. Not all bacteria use this protein, however, so the drug works only to help fight certain infections caused by bacteria that are known to be susceptible to its effects. While bacteria can be susceptible to more than one type of antibiotic, erythromycin may be favored in cases when either it does a better job at fighting the bacteria or when the person with the infection is allergic to the other types of antibiotics that could be used.

One example of a bacteria that erythromycin can help fight is the Neisseria gonorrhoeae bacteria. This bacteria can cause the sexually transmitted genital infection commonly known as gonorrhea. Erythromycin is often the drug of choice when treating gonorrhea patients with penicillin allergies. Similarly, it is also often used to treat syphilis in patients who are allergic to penicillin.

In both patients with and without penicillin allergies, erythromycin may also be used to help fight other types of bacteria, such as those that infect the throat, lungs, and skin. For example, it can help fight strep throat, diphtheria, and whooping cough. It may also be used to help prevent infection caused by certain Streptococcus bacteria, including rheumatic fever.

As with most medications, health care providers generally warn against certain side effects that can be caused by erythromycin. Some of these side effects, such as nausea, diarrhea, and stomach cramps, may be mild and go away on their own. Other side effects can be a sign of a serious problem, such as an allergic reaction or liver problems. Such serious side effects can include trouble breathing; swelling of the mouth, throat, and eyes; and yellowing of the eyes or skin.

Health care providers may recommend against the use of erythromycin in certain people. This group may include, for example, people with liver problems, those who are allergic to other macrolide antibiotics, and those who are taking certain other medications. In these cases, the risk of side effects or worsening of an existing condition may outweigh any potential benefits of taking the drug.

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