Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, 4th Edition

The therapeutic use of antimicrobial agents


Bacteraemia and endocarditis

  1. G. Finch


Bacteraemia refers to the presence of viable bacteria in the blood. The patient may be completely asymptomatic or present with fever, rigors, tachycardia, shock and multi-organ failure, sometimes leading to death. When bacteraemia is associated with clinical signs and symptoms it is referred to as septicaemia. Thus bacteraemia is a laboratory finding whereas septicaemia is a clinical term.

The widespread use of haemodynamic monitoring in intensive care units has shown that not all patients with septicaemia are bacteraemic, and the terms sepsis and sepsis syndrome have become popular. This takes into account that the sepsis syndrome results from the release of cytokines (inflammatory mediators such as tumour necrosis factor, interleukin-1 and interleukin-6) stimulated by microbial products (structural component of organisms, such as lipopolysaccharide, teichoic acid, or exotoxins). On the other hand the term sepsis has been used loosely by some to mean any infection with or without blood involvement. Here the term septicaemia is used to indicate the presence of signs and symptoms in infections involving the bloodstream.

Any traumatic procedure that facilitates entry of organisms from an infected cutaneous lesion or bacteria-laden mucosal surface may cause bacteraemia (Table 23.1). In addition, invasive infections such as pneumococcal pneumonia, meningitis, or osteomyelitis may be associated with bacteraemia.

Table 23.1 Procedures that may produce transient bacteraemia


Predominant organism



Viridans streptococci

Dental extraction


Periodontal surgery


Surgery or instrumentation of the upper respiratory tract


Surgery or instrumentation of:


   urinary tract


   gastrointestinal tract


   biliary tract


Obstetric or gynaecological surgery

Staphylococcus aureus

Manipulation or drainage of a septic focus


In the last 50 years changes have taken place in the type of organism most frequently encountered. In the pre-antibiotic era Streptococcus pyogenes and Str. pneumoniae accounted for most positive blood cultures and fatalities, but by 1960 Staphylococcus aureus had become dominant. Today, staphylococci and pneumococci are still important, but are outnumbered by Gram-negative bacilli as causes of septicaemia and death (Table 23.2). Anaerobes such as Bacteroides fragilis are also encountered more frequently, perhaps because of improved anaerobic techniques.

Table 23.2 Distribution of organisms in 4856 episodes of bacteraemia (1988–1998) at University Hospital, Nottingham



Per cent


Per cent


Escherichia coli


Staph. aureus


Klebsiella spp.


Staph. epidermidis


Proteus spp.


Str. pneumoniae


Salmonella enterica


Haemolytic streptococci (groups A, B, C, and G)


Other Enterobacteriaceae




Pseudomonas spp.


Other streptococci


Haemophilus influenzae




Neisseria meningitidis


















9.2 per cent



Data courtesy of Dr Fiona Donald, Nottingham Public Health Laboratory.


The increase in bacteraemic infections due to Gram-negative bacilli follows the success of antibiotics in controlling many Gram-positive infections, but advances in medical and surgical expertise have also played an important part: Gram-negative septicaemia is common in patients undergoing intra-abdominal surgery or aggressive immunosuppressive therapy and invasive procedures, and in those whose normal defences are already compromised by underlying disease. These infections are mostly hospital acquired, and because of the widespread use of antibiotics the infecting organisms are often multi-resistant.

Vascular catheters are widely used in medical management and have resulted in an increase in bacteraemia caused by Gram-positive cocci, notably Staph.


Staph. epidermidis, and enterococci. Polymicrobial bacteraemia and recurrent bacteraemia have also become more common in recent years.

Bacteraemia may be transient (lasting for several minutes) intermittent or continuous (lasting for several hours to days). The danger of transient bacter-aemia depends on the host and the organism. Thus, transient bacteraemia due to viridans streptococci after dental extraction is of no consequence in an otherwise healthy individual, but in those patients with abnormal heart valves it may produce endocarditis (see below). Staph. aureus may localize in the metaphyses of long bones in children or the vertebrae in adults and lead to osteomyelitis. Transient bacteraemia with Gram-negative bacilli following instrumentation of an infected urinary tract may produce rigor and fever.

Continuous bacteraemia is the hallmark of intravascular infection and also occurs in infections in patients with neutropenia, overwhelming septicaemia, acute haematogenous osteomyelitis, and infections with intracellular organisms such as Salmonella Typhi and Brucella spp. during the early stage of the illness.

Most other bacteraemias are intermittent and are characteristic of abscesses and certain types of chronic infection such as meningococcal or gonococcal septicaemia or brucellosis.

Laboratory investigation and antibiotic therapy

There are no specific clinical findings that are diagnostic of bacteraemia or fungaemia or, for that matter, that differentiate between Gram-negative and Gram-positive septicaemia. Hence the importance of blood cultures so that the pathogen is identified and specific therapy instituted as soon as possible. Mortality in patients with shock is over 50 per cent. If death is to be prevented and shock avoided, the clinician must react promptly to the early signs of septicaemia with appropriate ‘best-guess’ parenteral therapy.

Most bacteraemias are intermittent, hence the importance of more than one set of blood cultures before starting antibiotics. Ideally, at least two sets from separate venepunctures at intervals of a few minutes to a few hours (depending on the clinical urgency) should be taken. Since bacteraemias are usually low-grade, the volume of blood drawn at each venepuncture is important: in adults at least 10 ml should be taken; in infants and young children 1–3 ml. Specimens from other likely foci of infection must also be sent to the laboratory; these may include urine, sputum, cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), pus, pleural or joint fluids, etc. Often a Gram-stained smear of a specimen from the presumed site of infection gives the vital clue on which the choice of best-guess therapy can be based.

Secondary bacteraemia

When bacteraemia is secondary to a focus of infection that is readily apparent or clinically suspected it is usually possible to predict the most likely organisms from the clinical presentation. The selection of antibiotics is guided by the


suspicion of the focus of infection and by whether the infection was community or hospital acquired. The most appropriate antibiotic or combination can then be chosen in the light of local knowledge of resistance patterns and changed later, if necessary, on the basis of bacteriological findings.

Primary bacteraemia

Certain groups of patients give no clue as to the primary focus of infection or its likely source. Such ‘primary’ bacteraemia of unknown source may occur in neonates, immunocompromised patients, and rarely, normal individuals.

The neonate

The newborn baby is comparatively more susceptible to bacterial invasion of the bloodstream, but the recognition and localization of infection may be difficult because the manifestations are frequently non-specific. However, it is imperative that the diagnosis is made early, specimens collected, and antibiotic treatment started at once.

The initial empirical choice in a neonate with ‘early-onset’ (<7 days) sepsis is usually a combination of benzylpenicillin and gentamicin, which covers the two most common organisms, Escherichia coli and group B haemolytic streptococci (Str. agalactiae) as well as other streptococci, many other Gram-negative bacteria and Listeria monocytogenes. If, however, there is an obvious staphylococcal skin infection, flucloxacillin should be substituted for benzyl-penicillin.

Empirical treatment for ‘late-onset’ (>7 days) sepsis varies according to the clinical setting. The combination of cefotaxime and gentamicin should be considered in neonates who are ventilated, known to be colonized with enterobacteria, or have had previous exposure to antibiotics. Staph. epidermidis is the commonest isolate in patients with infection associated with intravenous catheters and vancomycin is the only reliable agent against these organisms, so that a combination of vancomycin with gentamicin or cefotaxime would be a reasonable choice in neonates in whom catheter-associated sepsis is strongly suspected.

Immunocompromised patients

Bacteraemia is common in immunocompromised patients, especially those with haematological malignant disease complicated by profound neutropenia, mucosal ulcerations, and administration of corticosteroid, cytotoxic, and immunosup-pressive drugs. Despite the fact that blood cultures from these patients yield Gram-positive cocci more frequently than Gram-negative rods, it is the Gram-negatives, in particularPseudomonas aeruginosa, that are feared, for if left untreated most patients will die within 48 h.

It is customary to provide a broad-spectrum synergistic combination of antibiotics as initial empirical therapy. Widely used regimens include an amino-glycoside (e.g. gentamicin) together with either an antipseudomonal penicillin (e.g. piperacillin) or an expanded spectrum cephalosporin with antipseudomonal


activity (e.g. ceftazidime). If blood cultures are positive modifications to the regimen are made.

If fever persists for more than 72 h despite broad-spectrum antibiotics and blood cultures remain negative, the patient should be reassessed and repeat blood cultures obtained. Vancomycin or teicoplanin may be added to the regimen of those who have vascular catheters in situ. Empirical antifungal therapy with amphotericin B should be considered in selected patients who remain febrile and neutropenic for 7 days despite broad-spectrum antibiotics.

Normal individuals

Primary bacteraemia in previously healthy individuals is rare. The most common type seen the UK is that due to Neisseria meningitidis. In infants, children or young adults it can produce a fulminating septicaemia with petechial rash progressing to shock and death in a matter of hours. Mortality can be as high as 30 per cent. General practitioners suspecting this condition should give benzylpenicillin immediately before transferring the patient to hospital. Since it is unlikely that subsequent blood or CSF cultures from these patients would be positive, a throat or pernasal swab should be obtained and a special request made for the isolation of N. meningitidis.

Str. pneumoniae occasionally causes bacteraemia in an otherwise healthy, but febrile child. Those aged 6 months to 2 years are most at risk. Although such bacteraemias may resolve spontaneously, a small minority of patients remain ill and a few develop severe disease, including meningitis. Antibiotic therapy with amoxycillin is warranted. Other important causes of primary bacteraemia include Salmonella enterica serotypes Typhi and Paratyphi (see p. 248), and, rarely, Brucella spp.

Management of septicaemic shock

Septicaemic shock is characterized by hypotension, decreased systemic vascular resistance, myocardial depression, maldistribution of blood flow, and multi-organ system failure. The management of septicaemia is based on two basic principles:

  • to eradicate the source of infection with appropriate antibiotics and drainage or debridement of the septic focus, whenever possible
  • to stabilize the patient haemodynamically with the administration of intravenous fluids, oxygen, inotropic agents, and vasopressors.

Even when managed aggressively in intensive care units, the mortality in those with multi-organ failure stage is depressingly high (about 50 per cent). Since the manifestations of sepsis are associated with the release of cytokines by macrophages in response to microbial products, there has been much interest in the possibility that interference with bacterial or host mediators of inflammation might act as a beneficial adjunct to antimicrobial therapy in septic patients.



Monoclonal antibodies against lipid A of Gram-negative bacteria and against various cytokines, such as interleukin-1 and tumour necrosis factor, have been subjected to therapeutic trial. To date, none has shown clinical benefit. The patho-physiology of sepsis is extremely complex, suggesting that no single strategy is likely to prove effective in all patients.

Infective endocarditis

Endocarditis is an inflammation of the endocardial surface of the heart. An infection of the endocardium with micro-organisms is known as ‘infective’ endocarditis, which is preferable to the old term ‘bacterial’ endocarditis, since fungi, rickettsiae, or chlamydiae may be involved. Although the infection may be located anywhere within the heart chamber, the lesion is usually on the heart valves. The terms acute and subacute endocarditis originated in the pre-antibiotic era when all patients with endocarditis died. Those who died in less than 6 weeks due to infection of normal valves by virulent organisms such as Staph. aureus, Str. pneumoniae, or N. gonorrhoeae were said to have acute bacterial endocarditis. In contrast, those who suffered a more indolent course due to infection of abnormal valves by relatively avirulent organisms (e.g. viridans streptococci), and died much later, sometimes after a year of illness, were said to have subacute bacterial endocarditis.

Nowadays, most patients with infective endocarditis are cured provided the diagnosis is made, and treatment with appropriate antibiotics begun sufficiently early. It is also more useful to classify endocarditis according to the infecting organism and the underlying site of infection (e.g. Staph. aureus tricuspid endocarditis). This indicates the probable course of the disease and has therapeutic implications with regard to the antibiotic regimen to be used.


Infective endocarditis affects about 2000 people per year in England and Wales and has a mortality of 15–30 per cent. In recent years the spectrum of recognized underlying cardiac lesions in endocarditis in adults has changed as a result of a decline in rheumatic heart disease (in the developed world) and improvement in diagnostic techniques (echocardiography). The following trends have been noted:

  • The mean age of the patient has increased. In the past the mean age of the patients was less than 40 years, today more than half of the patients are over 50 for the following reasons:
  • people with congenital heart disease or rheumatic heart disease survive longer because of advances in medical and surgical expertise to correct valve dysfunction



  • increased life expectancy is associated with a raised incidence of degenerative valve disease; almost 30 per cent of elderly patients who develop endocarditis do not have a pre-existing cardiac condition. Minor degenerative changes produce valvular lesions which serve as a nidus for infection.
  • infectious complications, genitourinary and gastrointestinal disease predispose to hospital-acquired bacteraemias in elderly people.
  • Acute Staph. aureusendocarditis has increased, predominantly in young adult intravenous drug-abusers.
  • The ‘classic’ physical signs of subacute bacterial endocarditis are seen in fewer patients as a result of earlier diagnosis.
  • Mitral valve prolapse with regurgitation is recognized more frequently and predisposes to endocarditis.
  • Prosthetic valve endocarditis has increased in proportion to cardiac valve surgery.


Infective endocarditis is the consequence of several events (Fig. 23.1):


Fig. 23.1 Pathogenesis of infective endocarditis.

  • damage to the endothelial surface of the valve (e.g. turbulence of blood flow from an incompetent valve can denude the endothelium)
  • deposition of platelets and fibrin on the edges of the valve, resulting in the formation of a non-bacterial thrombotic vegetation (NBTV)
  • colonization of NBTV by micro-organisms transiently circulating in the blood to produce an infected vegetation.

Transient bacteraemia is common. A wide variety of trivial events (e.g. chewing and tooth-brushing) also induce streptococcal bacteraemia. Indeed, 85 per cent of cases of streptococcal endocarditis cannot be related to any medical or dental procedure. To cause endocarditis organisms must not only enter the circulation, but must also be able to survive natural complement-mediated serum bactericidal activity and adhere to thrombotic vegetations. Certain streptococci capable of producing extracellular dextran tend to stick to fibrin–platelet vegetations and are known to cause endocarditis more frequently than non-dextran producing strains. However, organisms such as enterococci andStaph. aureus that do not produce dextran are also important causes of endocarditis. In these cases adherence may be mediated by host proteins such as fibronectin and fibrinogen.

Once colonization occurs there is rapid deposition of additional layers of platelets and fibrin over and around the growing colonies, causing the vegetation to enlarge. Within 24–48 h marked proliferation of bacteria occurs, leading to dense populations of organisms (109-1010bacteria/g tissue). Micro-organisms deep within the vegetations are often metabolically inactive, whereas the more superficial ones proliferate and are shed into the bloodstream continuously. Fresh




vegetations are composed of colonies of micro-organisms in a fibrin-platelet matrix containing relatively few leucocytes.

Aetiological agents

Any organism can cause infective endocarditis, but streptococci and staphylococci account for more than 90 per cent of culture-positive cases. However, the frequency with which various organisms are involved differs not only for the type of valve that is infected (native or prosthetic) but also with the causative event (e.g. dental manipulation, intravenous drug abuse, or a hospital-acquired infection) (Table 23.3).

Table 23.3 Aetiological agents in infective endocarditis and their approximate frequency



Predisposing factor



Prosthetic valve/cardiac surgery



Native valve (%)

Early-onset (%)

Late-onset (%)

Intravenous drug abuser (%)


Streptococci (all)





Viridans (α-haemolytic)





Str. bovis





Enterococcus faecalis





Other streptococci





Staphylococci (all)





Staph. aureus





Staph. epidermidis





Gram-negative aerobic bacilli










Miscellaneous bacteria





Culture negative






Native-valve endocarditis


Streptococci account for about 65 per cent of all cases of native valve endo-carditis. Most common of all are the ‘viridans streptococci’, a heterogeneous group including Streptococcus mitis, Str. sanguis, Str. mutans, the Str. milleri group, and Str. salivarius, normally present as commensals in the mouth; most


are highly sensitive to penicillin and cause infections primarily on abnormal heart valves. Str. bovis is an important cause of endocarditis in elderly people and is frequently associated with colonic polyps and carcinoma. Recovery of this organism should prompt an early investigation for colonic disease.

Enterococci are related to streptococci, but are classified as a separate genus. They are gut commensals and cause 10 per cent of all streptococcal cases. Haemolytic streptococci of Lancefield groups B and G are occasionally incriminated in endocarditis. Diabetic patients are particularly at risk for group B infections.


Staphylococci account for 25 per cent of cases of native valve endocarditis, but over 90 per cent is due to Staph. aureus, which is the leading cause of acute endocarditis. The course is frequently fulminant with widespread metastatic abscesses and death in about 40 per cent of cases. The organism can attack normal or damaged valves and cause rapid destruction of the affected valves. Surgery is often required.Staph. epidermidis, in contrast, causes an indolent infection on previously damaged valves.

Other bacteria

Almost all species of bacteria have occasionally been reported as causes of native valve endocarditis. Most commonly encountered are the fastidious, slow-growing Gram-negative bacilli of the ‘HACEK’ group (Haemophilus spp, Actinobacillus actinomycetemcomitans, Cardiobacterium hominis, Eikenella corrodens, and Kingella spp.) Gram-negative enteric bacteria rarely cause endocarditis, except in intravenous drug abusers and patients with prosthetic valves. However, salmonellae have an affinity for abnormal cardiac valves and aneurysms of major vessels.


These organisms seldom cause native valve endocarditis. Risk factors include major underlying illnesses, prolonged courses of broad-spectrum antibiotics, corti-costeroids or cytotoxic agents, and a central venous line in situ for a considerable length of time. Fungal endocarditis is more often seen in intravenous drug abusers or after reconstructive cardiovascular surgery. Candida and Aspergillus species are usually implicated. The course is indolent but grave. Large vegetations frequently embolize, occluding major vessels in the lower extremities. Culture of material obtained at embolectomy may yield the offending organism when blood cultures are negative.

Prosthetic valve endocarditis

Endocarditis involving a prosthetic valve is termed ‘early-onset’ when symptoms appear within 60 days of insertion and ‘late-onset’ when symptoms occur after that time. Early-onset disease usually reflects contamination during the peri-


operative period. Despite prophylactic antibiotics, staphylococci account for 50 per cent of all cases; Staph. epidermidis is more common than Staph. aureus. Early-onset infection is often associated with valve dehiscence, a fulminant course, and a high mortality. Late-onset prosthetic valve endocarditis occurs after the valve has become endothelialized. The source of infection, as in native valve endocarditis, is seeding of the valves following transient bacteraemia and viri-dans streptococci again become the commonest organism. Late-onset disease caused by Staph. epidermidis, diphtheroids, or other organisms of the early-onset type may just reflect a delayed manifestation of infection acquired in the peri-operative period.

Infective endocarditis in intravenous drug abusers

The skin is the commonest source of micro-organisms responsible for infective endocarditis in intravenous drug abusers, although contaminated drug and syringes are other possibilities. Staph. aureus is the predominant cause, but other organisms including Pseudomonasspp., group A haemolytic streptococci, other streptococci, and fungi are also important. Endocarditis often involves the tricuspid valve, especially when Staph. aureus is the causative agent.

Laboratory diagnosis

Blood cultures must be obtained from all patients with fever and heart murmur before contemplating antibiotic therapy, irrespective of the initial diagnosis. Bacteraemia is usually low grade, but continuous, so it does not really matter when blood cultures are obtained. In the absence of previous antimicrobial therapy blood cultures are positive in more than 90 per cent of cases.

At least 10 ml of blood should be withdrawn at each venepuncture and distributed equally into two bottles (one set). Strict attention should be paid to skin preparation and aseptic technique. At least three sets of blood cultures are obtained from three separate venepunctures over a period of time. Staph. epidermidis and diphtheroids are important causes of endocarditis, as well as common blood culture contaminants from the skin, and isolation of the same relatively ‘aviru-lent’ organism repeatedly in the absence of an intravascular catheter is highly suggestive of endocarditis.

The interval between each venepuncture depends on the clinical urgency. In acute cases, when antimicrobial therapy should be commenced within 2–3 h, three sets from separate venepunctures should be taken at intervals at least 30 min apart before the start of therapy. If there is no urgency, then the three sets are taken over a 24 h period with 6–8 h between each set. All blood culture bottles must be taken to the laboratory promptly and incubated for up to 3 weeks to cater for fastidious organisms.

Blood culture may be persistently negative in a small number of patients with suspected endocarditis. Likely explanations are:



  • prior administration of antibiotics (the most common cause)
  • infection with fastidious organisms including those of the HACEK group, Coxiella burnetiiChlamydia psittaci, or Brucellaspp.
  • infection with Candidaspp. in which only 50 per cent of blood cultures may be positive
  • infection of the right side of the heart, which is occasionally accompanied by negative blood cultures
  • cardiac disease other than infective endocarditis (e.g. left atrial myxoma).

When blood cultures are negative, paired samples of sera (one taken on admission and another 10–14 days later) should be examined for antibodies against other infective agents of endocarditis.

Echocardiography has assumed an increasingly important role in the diagnosis, assessment and management of patients with suspected infective endocarditis, but negative results do not exclude the diagnosis, especially in those with prosthetic valves.

General principles of therapy

The chief aims of management are to sterilize the vegetation and to ensure that relapse will not occur.

Bactericidal antibiotics

In endocarditis, organisms reach extremely high densities within the depths of the vegetation encased in layers of fibrin, where the bacteria are free to divide without interference from phagocytic cells or humoral defences. Hence, bactericidal antibiotics are essential to sterilize the vegetation. Bacteristatic agents such as tetracycline or chloramphenicol may produce a symptomatic response, but once discontinued, relapse is common and they should not be used. The most commonly used bactericidal agents are the penicillins, in particular benzylpenicillin. In penicillin-hypersensitive patients vancomycin or a cephalosporin are suitable alternatives.

Route and duration of therapy

Parenteral high-dose bactericidal therapy is essential to guarantee the penetration of relatively avascular vegetations. Most patients with endocarditis are cured by 4 weeks of treatment; some may require treatment for 6 weeks or more, although a selected group may be cured in only 2 weeks. Shorter courses are associated with relapse. Oral treatment is recommended only after initial parenteral therapy, and if patient compliance is assured, for the last 2 weeks of treatment of selected cases of native valve endocarditis.



Synergistic combination therapy

Aminoglycosides, though generally bactericidal, have little activity against streptococci and cannot be used alone. However, the combination of gentamicin with penicillin produces a more rapid and complete bactericidal effect than is obtained with penicillin alone. It is therefore common practice to recommend combination therapy in the initial stages of management of infective endocarditis.

Laboratory control of antibiotic therapy

Determination of MIC and MBC

Ordinary disc diffusion or break-point sensitivities are not recommended in the laboratory management of endocarditis. Instead, the MIC and MBC of the antibiotics to be used, for the organism isolated, should be precisely determined (see Chapter 8). In difficult cases tests for antibiotic synergy may also be required for optimal combination therapy.

Aminoglycoside assays

When aminoglycosides (usually gentamicin) are used to treat endocarditis, a serum concentration lower than that considered therapeutic for Gram-negative infections should be adequate, thus lessening the potential for toxicity. Patients with normal renal function should receive a loading dose appropriate to the age and body weight, followed by a maintenance dose. The serum concentration should be periodically monitored and the dose adjusted accordingly (a pre-dose concentration <1.0 mg/l; post-dose 4–5 mg/l is adequate).

Specific antimicrobial regimens


Isolates highly sensitive to penicillin (MIC <0.1 mg/l)

This category includes viridans streptococci, Str. bovis, and other streptococci. Most viridans streptococci are highly sensitive to penicillin and a 99 per cent cure rate can be achieved with a 4-week regimen of benzylpenicillin alone. Such a regimen is recommended for the treatment of uncomplicated native valve endocarditis in elderly patients, or those with impaired renal function, in whom aminoglycosides are best avoided.

For uncomplicated native valve endocarditis it is common practice in the UK to give 2 weeks of combination therapy with high-dose benzylpenicillin together with an aminoglycoside and then to consider oral amoxycillin for the last 2 weeks if patient compliance can be guaranteed. Patients with prosthetic valve endocarditis should be treated for longer to ensure cure; 6 weeks is recommended.



Isolates relatively resistant to penicillin (MIC 0.1–0.5 mg/l)

This category includes viridans streptococci or ‘nutritionally variant’ streptococci. Viridans streptococci that are relatively resistant to penicillin are increasingly encountered. The relapse rate in endocarditis caused by ‘nutritionally variant’ streptococci is high, even when 2 weeks of combination therapy is followed by 2 further weeks of benzylpenicillin. Endocarditis caused by such strains or other streptococci that are relatively resistant to penicillin is best treated with high dose benzylpenicillin and gentamicin for 4 weeks, with appropriate monitoring of serum gentamicin levels.

Isolates resistant to penicillin (MIC >0.5 mg/l)

Examples are Enterococcus faecalis, Ent. faecium, and other streptococci. Enterococcal endocarditis is the third most common type of endocarditis and is among the most difficult to treat. Mortality is around 20 per cent and relapses are not uncommon. Although penicillin, ampicillin, and vancomycin inhibit the growth of enterococci they are not bactericidal for most strains, and therapy with these agents alone results in a high relapse rate. For a bactericidal effect, it is usually necessary to add an aminoglycoside; this results in marked enhancement of killing. A combination of penicillin or ampicillin with an aminoglycoside is the treatment of choice for enterococcal endocarditis; gentamicin is the preferred aminoglycoside. High-level resistance to gentamicin among enterococci is becoming more common and in-vitro testing (with a disc containing 100 mg of gentamicin) should be a routine procedure in all isolates of enterococci.

Ent. faecium is generally more resistant to β-lactam antibiotics than Ent. faecalis; β-lactamase-producing Ent. faecalis strains have also been reported. Such patients are best treated with vancomycin and gentamicin. Enterococci are uniformly resistant to all cephalosporins. Patients with enterococcal endocarditis should receive at least 4–6 weeks of combination therapy.


Staph. aureus

In about one third of patients with Staph. aureus endocarditis there is no evidence of pre-existing valvular heart disease. The infection results in rapid and severe valvular destruction and the mortality, even with appropriate treatment, is about 40 per cent.

Among patients over 50 years of age with Staph. aureus endocarditis secondary to infected intravascular devices, more than half die. Most of the rest need further surgery to replace the infected valve, because of valvular dysfunction, dehiscence, and myocardial abscesses. In contrast, Staph. aureus endocarditis involving the tricuspid valve in intravenous drug abusers is much easier to cure and carries a mortality below 10 per cent.

Since the vast majority of Staph. aureus strains produce a β-lactamase that destroys penicillin, the initial choice is a penicillinase-stable penicillin such as


flucloxacillin. However, the choice and the duration of treatment with a synergistic agent (e.g. gentamicin) are controversial. Flucloxacillin plus gentamicin is associated with a more rapid clearance of bacteraemia. In the UK, low-dose gentamicin is widely used with flucloxacillin for both native valve and prosthetic valve endocarditis, at least for the first 2 weeks of therapy.

In selected patients, such as an intravenous drug abuser with a right-sided endocarditis, in whom venous access is a problem, or a patient with uncomplicated native valve endocarditis, who has responded fully to 2 weeks of combination therapy, oral flucloxacillin may be considered for the remaining 2 weeks of therapy. The remaining patients should receive high-dose flucloxacillin intravenously for at least 4 weeks or longer in complicated cases.

If the patient is allergic to penicillin or the Staph. aureus is multi-resistant, then vancomycin should be used. Rifampicin, a very potent antistaphylococcal agent (which should never be used alone, owing to the emergence of resistance) should be added in difficult cases.

Staph. epidermidis

This organism rarely infects a native valve, but has become a common cause of both early and late onset prosthetic valve endocarditis. It is difficult to cure with antibiotics alone, and surgery is almost always required in patients with early-onset endocarditis. Isolates are frequently resistant to flucloxacillin, which must not be used unless the isolate is confirmed to be sensitive. Therapy must therefore be started with vancomycin and rifampicin. Gentamicin may be added for the first 2–3 weeks, if the strain is sensitive. Frequent monitoring of drug levels in the blood is mandatory to minimize the chances of toxicity. If the organism is indeed sensitive to flucloxacillin then vancomycin is stopped and flucloxacillin and rifampicin are continued.

Recommended antibiotic regimens for streptococcal and staphylococcal endocarditis are shown in Table 23.4 and Table 23.5 respectively.

Table 23.4 Recommended antibiotic treatment regimens for streptococcal endocarditis



Treatment of choice

Suggested adult dosage/interval/route



(a) Highly sensitive to penicillin (MIC 0.1 mg/l)
Viridans streptococci
Str. bovis
Other streptococci

Benzylpenicillin (4 weeks)
Gentamicin (weeks 1–2)

1.8 g/4 h/i.v.

Native valve endocarditis (NVE):
Consider benzylpenicillin alone for 4 weeks for elderly people or those at risk of renal problems
Consider change to oral amoxycillin (1 g/6 h) after 2 weeks combination therapy
In uncomplicated infections 2 weeks combination therapy may be adequate
Prosthetic valve endocarditis (PVE):
Gentamicin included for at least 2 weeks, then benzylpenicillin for a further 4 weeks; or oral amoxycillin (1 g/6 h) after 4 weeks benzylpenicillin (cephalosporins/vancomycina)

(b) Relatively resistant to penicillin
(MIC 0.1–0.5 mg/l)
Nutritionally variant
or viridans streptococci

Benzylpenicillin (4 weeks)
Gentamicin (4 weeks)

2.4 g/4 h/i.v.

The relapse rate is high; combination therapy may be prolonged for 4 weeks; high doses of benzylpenicillin should be used

(c) Resistant to penicillin
(MIC >0.5 mg/l)
Viridans streptococci

Ampicillin (4 weeks)
Gentamicin (4 weeks)

2 g/4 h/ i.v.

Ampicillin more active than benzylpenicillin for enterococci.
To avoid relapse, prolong combination therapy for
6 weeks if: (1) PVE; (2) symptoms for >3 months; (3) mitral valve involved; (4) relapse of enterococcal endocarditis (vancomycina)


a Alternative drugs if patient is allergic to penicillin.

Table 23.5 Recommended antibiotic treatment regimens for staphylococcal endocarditis



Treatment of choice

Suggested adult dosage/interval/route



Staph. aureus

Flucloxacillin (4 weeks)
Gentamicin (weeks 1–2)

2 g/4 h/i.v.

In selected patients consider oral flucloxacillin after 2 weeks (see text)
In complicated or PVE flucloxacillin may be prolonged for 6 weeks; consider adding rifampicin (300 mg b.d. oral). Use vancomycin 1g/12 h/i.v. for methicillin-resistant strains, or if allergic to penicillin. Surgery often required

Staph. epidermidis

Vancomycin (4 weeks)
Rifampicin (4 weeks)
Gentamicin (weeks 1–3)

1 g/12 h/i.v.
300 mg/12 h/oral

Most strains resistant to flucloxacillin; use rifampicin and gentamicin if susceptible; prolong vancomycin and rifampicin for 6–8 weeks; surgery often required


PVE, prosthetic valve endocarditis.

Other organisms

Recommended antibiotic regimens for endocarditis caused by Gram-negative bacilli and other organisms are shown in Table 23.6. Culture-negative cases are occasionally caused by Coxiella burnetii or Chlamydia psittaci and may be detected by serology.

Table 23.6 Recommended antibiotic treatment regimens for endocarditis other than that caused by streptococci and staphylococci (doses are for adult with normal renal and hepatic function)




Suggested dose/interval/route

Duration (weeks)



‘HACEK’ groupa

Ampicillin + gentamicin

2 g/4 h/i.v.
Synergistic dose


Sensitivity tests difficult to perform or interpret


Cefotaxime + gentamicin

2 g/4 h/i.v.
Full dose


Choice depends on sensitivity test results; for salmonellae consider ceftriaxone 2 g/12 h/i.v. instead of cefotaxime; gentamicin used in full dose throughout to prevent resistance; mortality high; surgery often required.

Ps. aeruginosa

Ceftazidime + gentamicin

3 g/8 h/i.v.
Full dose


Left-sided endocarditis needs early surgery; right-sided may be treated medically first.

N. gonorrhoeae
N. meningitidis


2.4 g/4 h/i.v.


Rare; usually highly sensitive to penicillin; use cefotaxime for gonococci resistant to penicillin


Amphotericin B + flucytosine

1 mg/kg/24 h/i.v.
37.5 mg/kg/6 h/oral


Poor prognosis; early surgical excision plus medical treatment may succeed

Coxiella burnetii

Doxycycline + co-trimoxazole
or rifampicin

100 mg/12 h/oral


Rare; surgery often needed.

Culture negative




Depends on clinical setting
NVE: try enterococcal regimen (see Table 23.4);
PVE: try Staph. epidermidis regimen (seeTable 23.5)


a See text for meaning of this acronym.

NVE, native valve endocarditis; PVE, prosthetic valve endocarditis.

In clinically-suspected acute endocarditis, it is prudent to start treatment with a combination of benzylpenicillin, flucloxacillin, and gentamicin and to modify the regimen appropriately once the causative organism has been identified.

Surgical management

Emergency valve replacement in patients with infective endocarditis is an important adjunct to medical therapy. In selected patients, it is a life-saving procedure at any stage of the disease. The major indications for surgical intervention include:









  • refractory heart failure related to structural valvular damage
  • myocardial or perivalvular abscess
  • untreatable or uncontrolled infection (e.g. infection of a prosthetic valve with fungi or Gram-negative bacilli)
  • repeated relapses with a difficult organism (e.g. Ent. faecium)
  • multiple embolic episodes.


Infective endocarditis remains a life-threatening infection. The prognosis varies according to the infecting micro-organism, the type of cardiac valve (native versus prosthetic and aortic versus mitral versus tricuspid), the age of the patient, and the presence or absence of complications. Mortality is lowest in viridans streptococcal endocarditis of the native valve and highest in early-onset prosthetic valve endocarditis.

Patients who recover from an episode of infective endocarditis carry a lifelong risk of a further attack. It is important that they maintain high levels of dental hygiene supplemented by regular dental reviews. Antibiotic prophylaxis plays an essential role in the risk of bacteraemia associated with many dental procedures (see p. 218).

Editors: Greenwood, David