Comparative tolerability of erythromycin and newer macrolide antibacterials in paediatric patients

Drug Saf. 1999 Jan;20(1):25-41. doi: 10.2165/00002018-199920010-00004.


The macrolides are a well established group of antibacterials frequently used in general practice. The most frequently used macrolides in paediatric patients are erythromycin, a naturally occurring compound, and clarithromycin and azithromycin, recently developed macrolides. Overall adverse effect rates of 7 to 26% for erythromycin, 14 to 26% for clarithromycin, and 6 to 27% for azithromycin have been described in children. Adverse gastrointestinal effects, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and abdominal cramps, are the most common problems in children. Allergic reactions, hepatotoxicity, ototoxicity and adverse effects involving the central and peripheral nervous systems have also been observed in children. Stevens-Johnson, Schonlein-Henoch and Churg-Strauss syndromes have been rarely described in children. Treatment-related laboratory abnormalities have been recorded in 2 to 4% of erythromycin- and in 0 to 1% of both clarithromycin- and azithromycin-treated children. Elevation in liver function tests was the most common abnormality cited. Increased macrolide use in children in recent years has resulted in a growing potential for drug interactions between them and other pharmacologically active agents via the inhibition of cytochrome P450 (CYP) microsomal enzymes. Drug interactions with theophylline, cyclosporin, carbamazepine, terfenadine and warfarin limit erythromycin use. Clarithromycin is a weak inducer of CYP and exhibits fewer drug-drug interactions than erythromycin. However, its use with theophylline, carbamazepine and terfenadine is contraindicated. In contrast, no significant interactions have been reported with azithromycin to date. Macrolides have been proven to be well tolerated in the treatment of upper and lower respiratory tract infections, skin and soft tissue infections, and also in less frequent infections occurring in paediatric patients. In addition, clarithromycin and azithromycin have shown good tolerability profiles in immunocompromised paediatric patients. In conclusion, macrolides antibacterials have proven to be well tolerated in paediatric patients. Although the incidence of adverse effects is similar with the use of erythromycin and the newer macrolides, drug interactions occur significantly less when clarithromycin or azithromycin are administered.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / adverse effects*
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / therapeutic use
  • Azithromycin / adverse effects*
  • Azithromycin / therapeutic use
  • Bacterial Infections / drug therapy*
  • Child
  • Clarithromycin / adverse effects*
  • Clarithromycin / therapeutic use
  • Drug Hypersensitivity / etiology
  • Drug Interactions
  • Erythromycin / adverse effects*
  • Erythromycin / therapeutic use
  • Humans
  • Liver Function Tests


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Erythromycin
  • Azithromycin
  • Clarithromycin