Anti-inflammatory effects of macrolides--an underappreciated benefit in the treatment of community-acquired respiratory tract infections and chronic inflammatory pulmonary conditions?

J Antimicrob Chemother. 2005 Jan;55(1):10-21. doi: 10.1093/jac/dkh519. Epub 2004 Dec 8.


Background: It has been recognized for more than 20 years that the macrolides have immunomodulatory effects that are beneficial for those suffering from chronic pulmonary inflammatory syndromes, such as diffuse panbronchiolitis, cystic fibrosis, asthma and bronchiectasis. The macrolides have consistently been associated with decreased length of stay and mortality when used alone or in combination with beta-lactam antibiotics. This effect can be demonstrated against combinations consisting of beta-lactams and other antibiotics active against 'atypical chest pathogens' when treating community-acquired pneumonia (CAP) in hospitalized patients. As such, it appears that the macrolides' effects in CAP patients are more than just antibacterial in nature. AIMS OF THIS REVIEW: This review aims: to give the reader information on the background areas described, as well as related areas; to review the CAP benefits with macrolides and how they may be related to the immunomodulatory properties they demonstrate, albeit in a shorter period of time than previously demonstrated with chronic pulmonary disorders; to use ex vivo data to support these extrapolations.

Literature search: A literature search using Medline was conducted from 1966 onwards, searching for articles with relevant key words such as macrolide, diffuse panbronchiolitis, community-acquired pneumonia, biofilm, immunomodulation, cystic fibrosis, erythromycin, clarithromycin, roxithromycin and azithromycin, bronchiectasis and asthma. When appropriate, additional references were found from the bibliographies of identified papers of interest. Any relevant scientific conference proceedings or medical texts were checked when necessary.

Conclusions: (1) Research into macrolide immunomodulation for chronic pulmonary disorders demonstrates consistent positive effects, although of types other than seen with diffuse panbronchiolitis. These effects, together with their inhibitory activity on biofilms, have the potential to make them a useful option. (2) The benefits for CAP are consistent, and higher when a macrolide is given with another atypical agent than if the other atypical agent is given alone, suggesting a non-antibacterial benefit. (3) Recent research of the immunomodulatory properties of azithromycin imply that azithromycin may have a previously unknown short-term biphasic effect on inflammation modulation: enhancement of host defence mechanisms shortly after initial administration followed by curtailment of local infection/inflammation in the following period. (4) Additional in vivo research is needed prior to developing any firm conclusions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Azithromycin / therapeutic use
  • Chronic Disease
  • Clarithromycin / therapeutic use
  • Community-Acquired Infections / drug therapy*
  • Erythromycin / therapeutic use
  • Humans
  • Inflammation / drug therapy
  • Macrolides / therapeutic use*
  • Respiratory Tract Infections / drug therapy*


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents
  • Macrolides
  • Erythromycin
  • Azithromycin
  • Clarithromycin