Context: Erythromycin is a widely used antibiotic that infrequently causes QT-prolongation and torsades de pointes cardiac arrhythmias. For antiarrhythmic drugs, women are at a higher risk for these cardiac arrhythmias, but few other classes of drugs have been studied.
Objectives: To determine whether female sex is a risk factor for cardiac arrhythmias associated with erythromycin, and if this can be correlated with in vitro measurements of the QT-response to erythromycin in male and female rabbit hearts.
Design: Food and Drug Administration (FDA) MEDWATCH database analysis and in vitro experiment.
Main outcome measures: Cardiac arrhythmia reports associated with erythromycin from 1970 until 1996 classified by patient sex and age, and effect of female sex on erythromycin-induced QT-prolongation in isolated perfused rabbit hearts.
Results: We observed a sex difference in cardiac arrhythmias associated with administration of erythromycin. A total of 346 cases were found in the FDA database: 201 females (58%), 110 males (32%), and 35 unspecified (10%). Forty-nine were life-threatening ventricular arrhythmias and deaths directly related to intravenous erythromycin lactobionate: 33 women (67%) and 16 men (33%) (P=.03). During the same period, no sex imbalance was present in the prescription pattern for intravenous erythromycin lacobionate (men 47%, women 49%, unspecified 4%). Perfusion with erythromycin caused significantly greater QT-prolongation in female rabbit hearts (mean [SD], 11.8% [2.3%]) than in male hearts (6.9% [2.1%]; P = .03).
Conclusions: As has been shown in reports of antiarrhythmic drugs, we found a female predominance in the FDA reports of erythromycin-associated cardiac arrhythmias. Based on in vitro experiments, a sex difference in cardiac repolarization response to erythromycin is a potential contributing factor.