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Drug class
Cephalosporin core structure.svg
Core structure of the cephalosporins
Class identifiers
UseBacterial infection
ATC code J01D
Biological target Penicillin binding proteins
Clinical data
Drugs.com Drug Classes
External links
MeSH D002511
In Wikidata
Structure of the classical cephalosporins Cephalosporins Generation1.svg
Structure of the classical cephalosporins

The cephalosporins (sg. /ˌsɛfələˈspɔːrɪn,ˌkɛ-,-l-/ [1] [2] ) are a class of β-lactam antibiotics originally derived from the fungus Acremonium , which was previously known as "Cephalosporium". [3]


Together with cephamycins, they constitute a subgroup of β-lactam antibiotics called cephems. Cephalosporins were discovered in 1945, and first sold in 1964. [4]


The aerobic mold which yielded cephalosporin C was found in the sea near a sewage outfall in Su Siccu, by Cagliari harbour in Sardinia, by the Italian pharmacologist Giuseppe Brotzu in July 1945. [5]

Medical uses

Cephalosporins are indicated for the prophylaxis and treatment of infections caused by bacteria susceptible to this particular form of antibiotic. First-generation cephalosporins are active predominantly against Gram-positive bacteria, such as Staphylococcus and Streptococcus . [6] They are therefore used mostly for skin and soft tissue infections and the prevention of hospital-acquired surgical infections. [7] Successive generations of cephalosporins have increased activity against Gram-negative bacteria, albeit often with reduced activity against Gram-positive organisms.

The antibiotic may be used for patients who are allergic to penicillin due to the different β-lactam antibiotic structure. The drug is able to be excreted in the urine. [6] it is used in urinary tract infection it is an antibiotic

Side effects

Common adverse drug reactions (ADRs) (≥ 1% of patients) associated with the cephalosporin therapy include: diarrhea, nausea, rash, electrolyte disturbances, and pain and inflammation at injection site. Infrequent ADRs (0.1–1% of patients) include vomiting, headache, dizziness, oral and vaginal candidiasis, pseudomembranous colitis, superinfection, eosinophilia, nephrotoxicity, neutropenia, thrombocytopenia, and fever.

The commonly quoted figure of 10% of patients with allergic hypersensitivity to penicillins and/or carbapenems also having cross-reactivity with cephalosporins originated from a 1975 study looking at the original cephalosporins, [8] and subsequent "safety first" policy meant this was widely quoted and assumed to apply to all members of the group. [9] Hence, it was commonly stated that they are contraindicated in patients with a history of severe, immediate allergic reactions (urticaria, anaphylaxis, interstitial nephritis, etc.) to penicillins, carbapenems, or cephalosporins. [10] This, however, should be viewed in the light of recent epidemiological work suggesting, for many second-generation (or later) cephalosporins, the cross-reactivity rate with penicillin is much lower, having no significantly increased risk of reactivity over the first generation based on the studies examined. [9] [11] The British National Formulary previously issued blanket warnings of 10% cross-reactivity, but, since the September 2008 edition, suggests, in the absence of suitable alternatives, oral cefixime or cefuroxime and injectable cefotaxime, ceftazidime, and ceftriaxone can be used with caution, but the use of cefaclor, cefadrocil, cefalexin, and cefradine should be avoided. [12]

Overall, the research shows that all beta lactams have the intrinsic hazard of very serious hazardous reactions in susceptible patients. Only the frequency of these reactions vary, based on the structure. Recent papers have shown that a major feature in determining frequency of immunological reactions is the similarity of the side chains (e.g., first generation cephalosporins are similar to penicillins), and this is the reason the β-lactams are associated with different frequencies of serious reactions (e.g., anaphylaxis).[ citation needed ]

Several cephalosporins are associated with hypoprothrombinemia and a disulfiram-like reaction with ethanol. [13] [14] These include latamoxef (moxalactam), cefmenoxime, cefoperazone, cefamandole, cefmetazole, and cefotetan. This is thought to be due to the N-methylthiotetrazole side-chain of these cephalosporins, which blocks the enzyme vitamin K epoxide reductase (likely causing hypothrombinemia) and aldehyde dehydrogenase (causing alcohol intolerance). [15] Thus, consumption of alcohol after taking Cephalosporin orally or intravenously is contraindicated, and in severe cases can lead to death.[ citation needed ]

Mechanism of action

Cephalosporins are bactericidal and have the same mode of action as other β-lactam antibiotics (such as penicillins), but are less susceptible to β-lactamases. Cephalosporins disrupt the synthesis of the peptidoglycan layer forming the bacterial cell wall. The peptidoglycan layer is important for cell wall structural integrity. The final transpeptidation step in the synthesis of the peptidoglycan is facilitated by penicillin-binding proteins (PBPs). PBPs bind to the D-Ala-D-Ala at the end of muropeptides (peptidoglycan precursors) to crosslink the peptidoglycan. Beta-lactam antibiotics mimic the D-Ala-D-Ala site, thereby irreversibly inhibiting PBP crosslinking of peptidoglycan. [16]


Resistance to cephalosporin antibiotics can involve either reduced affinity of existing PBP components or the acquisition of a supplementary β-lactam-insensitive PBP. Currently, some Citrobacter freundii, Enterobacter cloacae , Neisseria gonorrhoeae , and Escherichia coli strains are resistant to cephalosporins. Some Morganella morganii , Proteus vulgaris, Providencia rettgeri, Pseudomonas aeruginosa , Serratia marcescens and Klebsiella pneumoniae strains have also developed resistance to cephalosporins to varying degrees. [17] [18]


The cephalosporin nucleus can be modified to gain different properties. Cephalosporins are sometimes grouped into "generations" by their antimicrobial properties. The first cephalosporins were designated first-generation cephalosporins, whereas, later, more extended-spectrum cephalosporins were classified as second-generation cephalosporins. Each newer generation has significantly greater Gram-negative antimicrobial properties than the preceding generation, in most cases with decreased activity against Gram-positive organisms. Fourth-generation cephalosporins, however, have true broad-spectrum activity. [19]

The classification of cephalosporins into "generations" is commonly practised, although the exact categorization is often imprecise. For example, the fourth generation of cephalosporins is not recognized as such in Japan.[ citation needed ] In Japan, cefaclor is classed as a first-generation cephalosporin, though in the United States it is a second-generation one; and cefbuperazone, cefminox, and cefotetan are classed as second-generation cephalosporins. Cefmetazole and cefoxitin are classed as third-generation cephems. Flomoxef and latamoxef are in a new class called oxacephems. [20]

Most first-generation cephalosporins were originally spelled "ceph-" in English-speaking countries. This continues to be the preferred spelling in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, while European countries (including the United Kingdom) have adopted the International Nonproprietary Names, which are always spelled "cef-". Newer first-generation cephalosporins and all cephalosporins of later generations are spelled "cef-", even in the United States.[ citation needed ]

Some state that cephalosporins can be divided into five or even six generations, although the usefulness of this organization system is of limited clinical relevance. [21]

Fourth-generation cephalosporins as of March, 2007, were considered to be "a class of highly potent antibiotics that are among medicine's last defenses against several serious human infections" according to The Washington Post . [22]

The mnemonic "LAME" is used to note organisms against which cephalosporins do not have activity:[ citation needed ]

Fifth-generation cephalosporins, however, are effective against MRSA.[ citation needed ]

1Gram-positive: Activity against penicillinase-producing, methicillin-susceptible staphylococci and streptococci (though they are not the drugs of choice for such infections). No activity against methicillin-resistant staphylococci or enterococci.[ citation needed ]

Gram-negative: Activity against Proteus mirabilis , some Escherichia coli , and Klebsiella pneumoniae ("PEcK"), but have no activity against Bacteroides fragilis , Pseudomonas , Acinetobacter , Enterobacter , indole-positive Proteus , or Serratia .[ citation needed ]


Antianaerobe activity:

The following cephems are also sometimes grouped with second-generation cephalosporins:

Gram-positive: Less than first-generation.[ citation needed ]

Gram-negative: Greater than first-generation: HEN Haemophilus influenzae , Enterobacter aerogenes and some Neisseria + the PEcK described above.[ citation needed ]


Antipseudomonal activity:

These cephems are also sometimes grouped with third-generation cephalosporins:

Gram-positive: Some members of this group (in particular, those available in an oral formulation, and those with antipseudomonal activity) have decreased activity against gram-positive organisms.

Activity against staphylococci and streptococci is less with the third-generation compounds than with the first- and second-generation compounds. [24]

Gram-negative: Third-generation cephalosporins have a broad spectrum of activity and further increased activity against gram-negative organisms. They may be particularly useful in treating hospital-acquired infections, although increasing levels of extended-spectrum beta-lactamases are reducing the clinical utility of this class of antibiotics. They are also able to penetrate the central nervous system, making them useful against meningitis caused by pneumococci, meningococci, H. influenzae, and susceptible E. coli, Klebsiella, and penicillin-resistant N. gonorrhoeae. Since August 2012, the third-generation cephalosporin, ceftriaxone, is the only recommended treatment for gonorrhea in the United States (in addition to azithromycin or doxycycline for concurrent Chlamydia treatment). Cefixime is no longer recommended as a first-line treatment due to evidence of decreasing susceptibility. [25]


These cephems are also sometimes grouped with fourth-generation cephalosporins:

Note:Cefquinome is not approved for human use. It is for veterinary medicine.

Gram-positive: They are extended-spectrum agents with similar activity against Gram-positive organisms as first-generation cephalosporins.[ citation needed ]

Gram-negative: Fourth-generation cephalosporins are zwitterions that can penetrate the outer membrane of Gram-negative bacteria. [26] They also have a greater resistance to β-lactamases than the third-generation cephalosporins. Many can cross the blood–brain barrier and are effective in meningitis. They are also used against Pseudomonas aeruginosa .[ citation needed ]

Cefiderocol has been called a fourth-generation cephalosporin by only one source as of November 2019. [27]

5 Ceftobiprole has been described as "fifth-generation" cephalosporin, [28] [29] though acceptance for this terminology is not universal. Ceftobiprole has anti-pseudomonal activity and appears to be less susceptible to development of resistance. Ceftaroline has also been described as "fifth-generation" cephalosporin, but does not have the activity against Pseudomonas aeruginosa or vancomycin-resistant enterococci that ceftobiprole has. [30] Ceftaroline has activity against MRSA. Ceftolozane is an option for the treatment of complicated intra-abdominal infections and complicated urinary tract infections. It is combined with the β-lactamase inhibitor tazobactam, as multi-drug resistant bacterial infections will generally show resistance to all β-lactam antibiotics unless this enzyme is inhibited. [31] [32] [33] [34] [35]
Other:These cephems have progressed far enough to be named, but have not been assigned to a particular generation: Nitrocefin is a chromogenic cephalosporin substrate, and is used for detection of β-lactamases.[ citation needed ]


Cephalosporin compounds were first isolated from cultures of Acremonium strictum from a sewer in Sardinia in 1948 by Italian scientist Giuseppe Brotzu. [36] He noticed these cultures produced substances that were effective against Salmonella typhi , the cause of typhoid fever, which had β-lactamase. Guy Newton and Edward Abraham at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology at the University of Oxford isolated cephalosporin C. The cephalosporin nucleus, 7-aminocephalosporanic acid (7-ACA), was derived from cephalosporin C and proved to be analogous to the penicillin nucleus 6-aminopenicillanic acid (6-APA), but it was not sufficiently potent for clinical use. Modification of the 7-ACA side chains resulted in the development of useful antibiotic agents, and the first agent, cefalotin (cephalothin), was launched by Eli Lilly and Company in 1964.[ citation needed ]

Related Research Articles


Beta-lactamases are enzymes produced by bacteria that provide multi- resistance to β-lactam antibiotics such as penicillins, cephalosporins, cephamycins, and carbapenems (ertapenem), although carbapenems are relatively resistant to beta-lactamase. Beta-lactamase provides antibiotic resistance by breaking the antibiotics' structure. These antibiotics all have a common element in their molecular structure: a four-atom ring known as a β-lactam. Through hydrolysis, the enzyme lactamase breaks the β-lactam ring open, deactivating the molecule's antibacterial properties.

Penicillin Group of antibiotics derived from Penicillium fungi

Penicillins are a group of antibiotics originally obtained from Penicillium moulds, principally P. chrysogenum and P. rubens. Most penicillins in clinical use are chemically synthesised from naturally-produced penicillins. A number of natural penicillins have been discovered, but only two purified compounds are in clinical use: penicillin G and penicillin V. Penicillins were among the first medications to be effective against many bacterial infections caused by staphylococci and streptococci. They are members of the β-lactam antibiotics, which are some of the most powerful and successful achievements in modern science. They are still widely used today for different bacterial infections, though many types of bacteria have developed resistance following extensive use.

β-lactam antibiotic

β-lactam antibiotics are antibiotics that contain a beta-lactam ring in their molecular structure. This includes penicillin derivatives (penams), cephalosporins (cephems), monobactams, carbapenems and carbacephems. Most β-lactam antibiotics work by inhibiting cell wall biosynthesis in the bacterial organism and are the most widely used group of antibiotics. Until 2003, when measured by sales, more than half of all commercially available antibiotics in use were β-lactam compounds. The first β-lactam antibiotic discovered, penicillin, was isolated from a rare variant of Penicillium notatum.


Aztreonam, sold under the brand name Azactam among others, is an antibiotic used primarily to treat infections caused by gram-negative bacteria such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa. This may include bone infections, endometritis, intra abdominal infections, pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and sepsis. It is given by injection into a vein or muscle or breathed in as a mist.


Ceftriaxone, sold under the brand name Rocephin, is an antibiotic used for the treatment of a number of bacterial infections. These include middle ear infections, endocarditis, meningitis, pneumonia, bone and joint infections, intra-abdominal infections, skin infections, urinary tract infections, gonorrhea, and pelvic inflammatory disease. It is also sometimes used before surgery and following a bite wound to try to prevent infection. Ceftriaxone can be given by injection into a vein or into a muscle.


Cefalexin, also spelled cephalexin, is an antibiotic that can treat a number of bacterial infections. It kills gram-positive and some gram-negative bacteria by disrupting the growth of the bacterial cell wall. Cefalexin is a beta-lactam antibiotic within the class of first-generation cephalosporins. It works similarly to other agents within this class, including intravenous cefazolin, but can be taken by mouth.


Meropenem, sold under the brandname Merrem among others, is an intravenous β-lactam antibiotic used to treat a variety of bacterial infections. Some of these include meningitis, intra-abdominal infection, pneumonia, sepsis, and anthrax.

Cefuroxime axetil

Cefuroxime axetil, sold under the brand name Ceftin among others, is a second generation oral cephalosporin antibiotic.


Ceftazidime, sold under the brand names Fortaz among others, is an antibiotic useful for the treatment of a number of bacterial infections. Specifically it is used for joint infections, meningitis, pneumonia, sepsis, urinary tract infections, malignant otitis externa, Pseudomonas aeruginosa infection, and vibrio infection. It is given by injection into a vein, muscle, or eye.

Piperacillin Chemical compound

Piperacillin is a broad-spectrum β-lactam antibiotic of the ureidopenicillin class. The chemical structure of piperacillin and other ureidopenicillins incorporates a polar side chain that enhances penetration into Gram-negative bacteria and reduces susceptibility to cleavage by Gram-negative beta lactamase enzymes. These properties confer activity against the important hospital pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Thus piperacillin is sometimes referred to as an "anti-pseudomonal penicillin".


Piperacillin/tazobactam, sold under the brand names Zosyn among others, is a combination medication containing the antibiotic piperacillin and the β-lactamase inhibitor tazobactam. The combination has activity against many Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria including Pseudomonas aeruginosa. It is used to treat pelvic inflammatory disease, intra-abdominal infection, pneumonia, cellulitis, and sepsis. It is given by injection into a vein.


Carbapenems are a class of highly effective antibiotic agents commonly used for the treatment of severe or high-risk bacterial infections. This class of antibiotics is usually reserved for known or suspected multidrug-resistant (MDR) bacterial infections. Similar to penicillins and cephalosporins, carbapenems are members of the beta lactam class of antibiotics, which kill bacteria by binding to penicillin-binding proteins, thus inhibiting bacterial cell wall synthesis. However, these agents individually exhibit a broader spectrum of activity compared to most cephalosporins and penicillins. Furthermore, carbapenems are typically unaffected by emerging antibiotic resistance, even to other beta-lactams.


Cefotaxime is an antibiotic used to treat a number of bacterial infections. Specifically it is used to treat joint infections, pelvic inflammatory disease, meningitis, pneumonia, urinary tract infections, sepsis, gonorrhea, and cellulitis. It is given either by injection into a vein or muscle.


Imipenem is an intravenous β-lactam antibiotic discovered by Merck scientists Burton Christensen, William Leanza, and Kenneth Wildonger in the mid-1970s. Carbapenems are highly resistant to the β-lactamase enzymes produced by many multiple drug-resistant Gram-negative bacteria, thus play a key role in the treatment of infections not readily treated with other antibiotics.

Ampicillin/sulbactam is a fixed-dose combination medication of the common penicillin-derived antibiotic ampicillin and sulbactam, an inhibitor of bacterial beta-lactamase. Two different forms of the drug exist. The first, developed in 1987 and marketed in the United States under the brand name Unasyn, generic only outside the United States, is an intravenous antibiotic. The second, an oral form called sultamicillin, is marketed under the brand name Ampictam outside the United States. And generic only in the United States, ampicillin/sulbactam is used to treat infections caused by bacteria resistant to beta-lactam antibiotics. Sulbactam blocks the enzyme which breaks down ampicillin and thereby allows ampicillin to attack and kill the bacteria.


Cefoxitin is a second-generation cephamycin antibiotic developed by Merck & Co., Inc. from Cephamycin C in the year following its discovery, 1972. It was synthesized in order to create an antibiotic with a broader spectrum. It is often grouped with the second-generation cephalosporins. Cefoxitin requires a prescription and as of 2010 is sold under the brand name Mefoxin by Bioniche Pharma, LLC. The generic version of cefoxitin is known as cefoxitin sodium.


Thienamycin is one of the most potent naturally produced antibiotics known thus far, discovered in Streptomyces cattleya in 1976. Thienamycin has excellent activity against both Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria and is resistant to bacterial β-lactamase enzymes. Thienamycin is a zwitterion at pH 7.

β-Lactamase inhibitor

Beta-lactamases are a family of enzymes involved in bacterial resistance to beta-lactam antibiotics. They act by breaking the beta-lactam ring that allows penicillin-like antibiotics to work. Strategies for combating this form of resistance have included the development of new beta-lactam antibiotics that are more resistant to cleavage and the development of the class of enzyme inhibitors called beta-lactamase inhibitors. Although β-lactamase inhibitors have little antibiotic activity of their own, they prevent bacterial degradation of beta-lactam antibiotics and thus extend the range of bacteria the drugs are effective against.

Cephalosporins are a broad class of bactericidal antibiotics that include the β-lactam ring and share a structural similarity and mechanism of action with other β-lactam antibiotics. The cephalosporins have the ability to kill bacteria by inhibiting essential steps in the bacterial cell wall synthesis which in the end results in osmotic lysis and death of the bacterial cell. Cephalosporins are widely used antibiotics because of their clinical efficiency and desirable safety profile.

Ceftolozane/tazobactam Antibiotic

Ceftolozane/tazobactam, sold under the brand name Zerbaxa, is a combination antibiotic medication used for the treatment of complicated urinary tract infections and complicated intra-abdominal infections in adults. Ceftolozane is a cephalosporin antibiotic, developed for the treatment of infections with gram-negative bacteria that are resistant to conventional antibiotics. It was studied for urinary tract infections, intra-abdominal infections and ventilator-associated bacterial pneumonia.


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