Azithromycin and clarithromycin: overview and comparison with erythromycin

Infect Control Hosp Epidemiol. 1992 Jun;13(6):357-68. doi: 10.1086/646545.


Azithromycin and clarithromycin are erythromycin analogues that have recently been approved by the FDA. These drugs inhibit protein synthesis in susceptible organisms by binding to the 50S ribosomal subunit. Alteration in this binding site confers simultaneous resistance to all macrolide antibiotics. Clarithromycin is several-fold more active in vitro than erythromycin against gram-positive organisms, while azithromycin is 2- to 4-fold less potent. Azithromycin has excellent in vitro activity against H influenzae (MIC90 0.5 microgram/ml), whereas clarithromycin, although less active against H influenzae (MIC90 4.0 micrograms/ml) by standard in vitro testing, is metabolized into an active compound with twice the in vitro activity of the parent drug. Both azithromycin and clarithromycin are equivalent to standard oral therapies against respiratory tract and soft tissue infections caused by susceptible organisms, including S aureus, S pneumoniae, S pyogenes, H influenzae, and M catarrhalis. Clarithromycin is more active in vitro against the atypical respiratory pathogens (e.g., Legionella), although insufficient in vivo data are available to demonstrate a clinical difference between azithromycin and clarithromycin. Superior pharmacodynamic properties separate the new macrolides from the prototype, erythromycin. Azithromycin has a large volume of distribution, and, although serum concentrations remain low, it concentrates readily within tissues, demonstrating a tissue half-life of approximately three days. These properties allow novel dosing schemes for azithromycin, because a five-day course will provide therapeutic tissue concentrations for at least ten days. Clarithromycin has a longer serum half-life and better tissue penetration than erythromycin, allowing twice-a-day dosing for most common infections. Azithromycin pharmacokinetics permit a five-day, single daily dose regimen for respiratory tract and soft tissue infections, and a single 1 g dose of azithromycin effectively treats C trachomatis genital infections; these more convenient dosing schedules improve patient compliance. Azithromycin and clarithromycin also are active against some unexpected pathogens (e.g., B burgdorferi, T gondii, M avium complex, and M leprae). Clarithromycin, thus far, appears the most active against atypical mycobacteria, giving new hope to what has become a difficult group of infections to treat. Gastrointestinal distress, a well known and major obstacle to patient compliance with erythromycin, is relatively uncommon with the new macrolides. Further clinical data and experiences may better define and expand the role of these new macrolides in the treatment of infectious diseases.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Azithromycin
  • Bacterial Infections / drug therapy*
  • Clarithromycin
  • Erythromycin / analogs & derivatives*
  • Erythromycin / chemistry
  • Erythromycin / pharmacokinetics
  • Erythromycin / pharmacology*
  • Gram-Negative Bacterial Infections / drug therapy
  • Humans
  • In Vitro Techniques
  • Mycobacterium Infections, Nontuberculous / drug therapy
  • Respiratory Tract Infections / drug therapy
  • Sexually Transmitted Diseases / drug therapy
  • Skin Diseases, Infectious / drug therapy


  • Erythromycin
  • Azithromycin
  • Clarithromycin