Penicillin failure in streptococcal tonsillopharyngitis: causes and remedies

Pediatr Infect Dis J. 2000 Sep;19(9):917-23. doi: 10.1097/00006454-200009000-00035.


Penicillin administered for 10 days has been the treatment of choice for group A beta-hemolytic streptococcal tonsillopharyngitis since the 1950s. The bacteriologic failure rate of 10 days of penicillin therapy ranged from approximately 2 to 10% until the early 1970s. Beginning in the late 1970s bacteriologic and clinical failure rates with penicillin therapy began to increase steadily over time and are now reported to be approximately 30%. The primary cause of penicillin treatment failure in streptococcal tonsillopharyngitis may be lack of compliance with the 10-day therapeutic regimen. Other causes of penicillin treatment failure include reexposure to Streptococcus-infected family members or peers; copathogenicity, in which bacteria susceptible to a class of drugs are protected by other, colocalized bacterial strains that lack the same susceptibility; antibiotic-associated eradication of normal protective pharyngeal flora; and penicillin tolerance, whereby streptococcal bacteria repeatedly or continuously exposed to sublethal concentrations of antibiotic become increasingly resistant to eradication. Although 10 days of penicillin therapy is effective in the management of tonsillopharyngitis for many patients, multiple factors may, singly or together, cause treatment failure. A number of antibiotics, particularly the cephalosporins, have been demonstrated to be superior to penicillin at eradicating group A beta-hemolytic Streptococcus, and several are effective when administered for 4 to 5 days.

Conclusions: Ten days of penicillin therapy may not be the best therapeutic choice for all pediatric patients. Other antibiotics, shortened courses of the cephalosporins in particular, may be preferable in some cases.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cephalosporins / administration & dosage
  • Cephalosporins / therapeutic use
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Drug Administration Schedule
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Penicillin Resistance*
  • Penicillins / administration & dosage
  • Penicillins / pharmacology*
  • Penicillins / therapeutic use
  • Pharyngitis / drug therapy*
  • Pharyngitis / pathology
  • Streptococcal Infections / drug therapy*
  • Streptococcus / drug effects
  • Streptococcus / pathogenicity
  • Tonsillitis / drug therapy*
  • Tonsillitis / pathology


  • Cephalosporins
  • Penicillins