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What are Cephalosporin Antibiotics?

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  • Written By: J.M. Densing
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 28 November 2016
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Cephalosporin antibiotics are one of the most commonly prescribed classes of antibiotic medications. They are closely related to penicillin and work by killing or halting the spread of bacteria responsible for causing illness. They work well in many areas of the body; examples of illnesses that can be treated with cephalosporin antibiotics include pneumonia and urinary tract infection. Within the class, they are divided into several generations; later groups of antibiotics are effective against an expanded range of bacteria. They are capable of causing unpleasant side effects and use should be monitored by a medical professional.

Cephalosporin antibiotics are prescribed for a wide range of illnesses and are currently the antibiotics of choice for many conditions. They are closely related to penicillin, with a similar chemical structure and method of acting. They work by disrupting the formation, or synthesis, of the bacterial cell wall by preventing necessary enzymes from acting. The cell wall is needed for the protection of the bacteria; once compromised, bacteria are unable to grow and eventually die.

Specific drugs tend to be more effective in certain areas or against particular bacteria than others. Unlike some classes of medications, however, cephalosporin antibiotics work well in most body fluids and types of soft tissue present in the human body. A wide range of illnesses can be treated with cephalosporin antibiotics. Examples include upper respiratory infections such as sinusitis, pneumonia, meningitis, skin infections, and urinary tract infections.

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Within the larger class, cephalosporin antibiotics are divided into generations; for the most part, each generation is effective against tougher bacteria than the one before it. The first generation works mainly against gram positive bacteria which are easier to kill. Successive generations are effective in killing a wider spectrum of bacteria.

Later generations, especially the third and fourth, are effective against gram negative bacteria which have a special outer membrane that keeps many medications out. Gram negative bacteria are harder to kill, and some have been able to develop resistance to many common antibiotics. The latest generation of cephalosporin antibiotics, the fifth, is being developed to be effective against highly resistant bacteria such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

Cephalosporin antibiotics can cause a variety of unpleasant side effects including upset stomach, nausea, and diarrhea as well as yeast infections. Those with specific medical conditions may not be able to take these medications. Based on medical history and other factors, a doctor should be able to determine whether these antibiotics are appropriate for a given patient.

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