Infections of the respiratory tract are among the most common causes for antibiotic prescribing. Their diagnosis within the community is generally limited to clinical criteria, and microbiological information is frequently lacking. Hospitalised patients with respiratory tract infections are more likely to undergo diagnostic sampling, but difficulties remain in reliably defining a microbial aetiology, thereby providing a confident basis for antibiotic selection. In considering the role of the cephalosporins in the treatment of respiratory tract infections, over 500 published articles have been reviewed. The pharmacokinetic considerations are discussed and the limitations of existing methodology are emphasised. Individual agents are reviewed by site of sepsis and conclusions are drawn from both comparative and non-comparative studies and in relation to currently recommended regimens. Although oral cephalosporins are widely used to treat upper respiratory tract infections, none is considered ideal, especially where Haemophilus influenzae is pathogenic. In the case of lower respiratory tract infections the beta-lactamase stable parenteral cephalosporins have become widely used to treat pneumonia in hospitalised patients, especially where Gram-negative enteric bacilli are of aetiological importance. However, the lack of activity of these drugs against Legionella spp., Mycoplasma pneumoniae and Coxiella burnetii must be emphasised. Another area of increasing use is in the treatment of infective exacerbations in patients suffering from cystic fibrosis of the lungs where Pseudomonas aeruginosa is pathogenic; ceftazidime in particular has proved a useful alternative to earlier antipseudomonal penicillin antibiotics.
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