Toxicity of polymyxins: a systematic review of the evidence from old and recent studies

Crit Care. 2006 Feb;10(1):R27. doi: 10.1186/cc3995.


Background: The increasing problem of multidrug-resistant gram-negative bacteria causing severe infections and the shortage of new antibiotics to combat them has led to the re-evaluation of polymyxins. These antibiotics were discovered from different species of Bacillus polymyxa in 1947; only two of them, polymyxin B and E (colistin), have been used in clinical practice. Their effectiveness in the treatment of infections due to susceptible gram-negative bacteria, including Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Acinetobacter baumannii, has not been generally questioned. However, their use was abandoned, except in patients with cystic fibrosis, because of concerns related to toxicity.

Methods: We reviewed old and recent evidence regarding polymyxin-induced toxicity by searching Pubmed (from 1950 until May 2005).

Results: It was reported in the old literature that the use of polymyxins was associated with considerable toxicity, mainly nephrotoxicity and neurotoxicity, including neuromuscular blockade. However, recent studies showed that the incidence of nephrotoxicity is less common and severe compared to the old studies. In addition, neurotoxic effects of polymyxins are usually mild and resolve after prompt discontinuation of the antibiotics. Furthermore, cases of neuromuscular blockade and apnea have not been reported in the recent literature.

Conclusion: New evidence shows that polymyxins have less toxicity than previously reported. The avoidance of concurrent administration of nephrotoxic and/or neurotoxic drugs, careful dosing, as well as more meticulous management of fluid and electrolyte abnormalities and use of critical care services may be some of the reasons for the discrepancy between data reported in the old and recent literature.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Drug Resistance, Multiple, Bacterial* / drug effects
  • Drug Resistance, Multiple, Bacterial* / physiology
  • Humans
  • Polymyxins / adverse effects*
  • Polymyxins / pharmacology


  • Polymyxins