What is Vancomycin?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Vancomycin is an antibiotic medicine discovered in the 1950s, and is not one of the more common drugs prescribed. It does however, have an extraordinarily important use, and may principally be employed to treat methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) or other forms of staph infections that have shown resistance to other antibiotics. In some cases, vancomycin is inadequate to treat these infections and even less common antibiotics are required.

Vancomycin is an antibiotic that is only taken orally when being used to treat a colon infection.
Vancomycin is an antibiotic that is only taken orally when being used to treat a colon infection.

One of the main reasons that vancomycin never evolved into a popularly prescribed antibiotic is because it can’t pass through the gastrointestinal tract and be properly absorbed. Only in instances where the drug is used to treat colon infections is it ever taken orally. In all other cases, administration of the medicine is by intravenous infusion, and this is not a popular or sensible way for most people to take antibiotics for mild infections.

Vancomycin is usually administered intravenously because it can't be absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract.
Vancomycin is usually administered intravenously because it can't be absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract.

Another noted reason why this antibiotic isn’t a first line treatment is because it can have serious side effects, and it’s therefore reserved for treatment in instances when it is truly needed. As a result, it holds the name “drug of last resort.” While occurrence of serious side effects tends to be rare with vancomycin, patients should be closely monitored. The medication can also have some side effects in a small group of users that aren’t medically concerning.

A couple of vancomycin side effects that aren’t considered medically serious in most cases include mild stomach upset and development of vaginal yeast infections. Greater concern exists if patients develop severe stomach pain, prominent diarrhea, or experience anaphylactic (allergic) shock reaction to the antibiotic. Some people develop a condition, called red man syndrome, which occurs while or right after vancomycin is infused, causing a rash to form and the skin to flush from at least the neck up. Infusing a patient with antihistamines can help reduce this risk.

Use of vancomycin may change the way blood cells are produced, and low levels of platelets might result, or white blood cell counts could change. In rare cases, the drug can damage the kidneys or damage hearing. These many potential risks, and there are many more, explain the limited use of this antibiotic. While it's good at eradicating certain infections, it can be hard on the body. It is important to note that many people tolerate this drug well, and are cured of very serious infections that resist treatment with other drugs.

Before prescribing an antibiotic of this nature, physicians are likely to get a full medical history from a patient that includes listing of other medications that are used. This information can be employed by the doctor to make the most logical choice of medication for serious infection. The choice may sometimes not be vancomycin, but could be another medicine that, given all medical circumstances, is more appropriate.

Vancomycin can be taken orally to treat colon infections.
Vancomycin can be taken orally to treat colon infections.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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