A new study published in The New England Journal of Medicine reminds us that even routinely prescribed antibiotics must be prescribed with care and only when appropriate. This time it’s azithromycin, an antibiotic sometimes referred to as the “Z-pack,” that’s come under scrutiny.
Azithromycin is prescribed to treat bacterial infections including bronchitis, pneumonia, and STDs as well as other common types of infection. More than 55 million prescriptions for azithromycin were written in 2011, so any report of a serious side effect is important.
The study’s investigators found a very slight but statistically significant increase in the risk of sudden death in people taking azithromycin compared to those on amoxicillin or taking no antibiotic at all. Not surprisingly, this finding has generated a lot of media buzz. But let’s put the numbers into perspective: Out of every million courses of azithromycin, researchers discovered an average of only 64.6 cases of sudden death–most of which occurred in patients with underlying heart disease. This translates to one death out of roughly every 15,500 prescriptions. The risk, therefore, is very low.
Still, azithromycin–like all antibiotics–should be taken only when necessary. If your health care provider prescribes azithromycin, make sure you understand why it is the right and necessary choice for you. If it is, you should feel confident that the risk of taking azithromycin is almost certainly far less than the risk of not treating your illness. If you’re currently taking azithromycin, don’t stop taking it without consulting your health care provider.