Author: Dr Aarthy Uthayakumar, Core Medical Trainee, University College Hospital London, UK. DermNet NZ Editor-in-Chief: A/Prof Amanda Oakley, Dermatologist, Hamilton, New Zealand. 4 March 2018.
Antibiotics are drugs used to treat bacterial infections.
An adverse drug reaction (ADR) is an unintended response to a drug at doses normally used for disease therapy. Cutaneous ADRs are ADRs affecting the skin.
ADRs are common, particularly in hospital inpatients, with estimates of 2–3% of hospitalised patients experiencing an ADR, and 1 in 20 of them being potentially fatal. [1,2].
Cutaneous ADRs account for 10–30% of ADRs, and are most commonly due to antibiotics . The reactions can vary in severity; most are mild-moderate, but severe reactions are estimated to occur in 0.1–2% of cases .
ADRs can be classified as either non-immunological or immunological.
Non-immunological ADRs caused by antibiotics include:
There are 4 main types of immunologically mediated hypersensitivity or allergic responses to drugs. These make up approximately 20% of ADRs :
Severe ADRs to some antibiotics, such as Stevens Johnson syndrome due to sulphonamides, are caused by complex immunological mechanisms .
It usually takes 7–10 days to become allergic to a drug, so if a reaction is rapid, it is either non-immunological or it is due to previous encounter of the same drug or a chemically similar substance .
Several other adverse drug reactions affecting the skin can be due to antibiotics and are listed below alphabetically.
It is sometimes difficult to elucidate whether an antibiotic has caused a rash. Drugs are rarely deliberately given to the affected patient again, as re-challenge has the potential to cause a life-threatening response in some cases. This means the true incidence of drug-inducted adverse drug reaction is difficult to calculate.
There are important differentials to consider when examining a suspected cutaneous drug reaction .
A large number of antibiotics have the potential to cause cutaneous drug reactions.
The 4 classes of beta-lactam antibiotics are penicillins, cephalosporins, carbapenems, and monolactams. Allergic reactions to beta-lactam antibiotics are the most common cause of immunological ADR.
There is some cross reactivity between penicillins and cephalosporins.
Cutaneous adverse reactions caused by beta lactams include
Though structurally similar, carbapenems can usually be safely used in patients with anaphylactoid reactions to penicillin. The major non-cutaneous side effects of beta-lactam use are diarrhoea, increased Clostridium difficile, and drug-induced liver injury, particularly due to co-amoxiclav.
In comparison to most other antibiotics, macrolides are considered relatively safe drugs.
Tetracycline antibiotics are frequently used in dermatology. Possible cutaneous reactions are:
Several older generation fluoroquinolones have been withdrawn from the market due to severe adverse reactions including photosensitivity .
Side effects of current generation quinolones include tendinopathy and QT prolongation. Common cutaneous reactions are:
Co-trimoxazole is a sulfonamide antibiotic commonly used in immunocompromised individuals, who are already more at risk of adverse drug reactions. The most frequent are morbilliform or urticarial rash; however serious ADRs can result, most commonly SJS . Observed cutaneous drug reactions include:
Non-cutaneous reactions include thrombocytopenia, anaemia, and electrolyte abnormalities .
It is essential to take a careful history in the diagnosis of cutaneous drug reactions. Many affected patients have been taking several drugs. Form a timeline, including the initiation of any new drugs and the rash onset.
Sometimes, a skin biopsy will be taken to clarify the inflammatory pattern. The presence of eosinophils can be a helpful clue to drug cause, but is non-specific.
The first principle of management is withdrawal of the causative drug.
Other measures include:
Antibiotics are one of the greatest discoveries in medicine, but they are not without complications.
Cutaneous side effects are commonly experienced, and have the potential to be life threatening, especially in at risk groups. Among the classes, penicillins, cephalosporins, sulfonamides and fluoroquinolones are the most common causes of cutaneous reactions, particularly severe ones.
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