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Does vancomycin lower your immune system?

Vancomycin is a glycopeptide antibiotic that is commonly used to treat infections caused by gram-positive bacteria, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). It works by inhibiting cell wall synthesis in bacteria. While vancomycin is an effective antibiotic, some people worry that it may lower the body’s immune system and make people more susceptible to other infections. In this article, we will examine the evidence on whether vancomycin truly suppresses the immune system.

How vancomycin works

To understand vancomycin’s effects on the immune system, it helps to first understand how it works. As mentioned, vancomycin inhibits cell wall synthesis in certain bacteria. It does this by binding to the D-alanyl-D-alanine terminus of the cell wall peptidoglycan precursor. This prevents crosslinking of the peptidoglycan strands, which provides rigidity to the bacterial cell wall. With their cell walls weakened, bacteria lyse and die.

Importantly, vancomycin is not absorbed systemically from the gastrointestinal tract. This means that when taken orally, vancomycin acts only within the gut lumen. It does not achieve significant systemic levels. Therefore, any immunosuppressive effects would be limited to the gastrointestinal tract when vancomycin is given orally.

Effects on gastrointestinal immunity

There is some evidence that oral vancomycin can alter the gastrointestinal microbiota and potentially suppress immune function locally in the gut:

– Oral vancomycin drastically reduces levels of bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract. While this helps eliminate pathogenic bacteria, it also depletes levels of beneficial commensal bacteria needed for proper immune system development and function.

– One small study found that taking oral vancomycin correlated with downregulation of various antibacterial peptide genes in the small intestine. These peptides help provide mucosal immunity against invading pathogens.

– Several studies in mice indicate that depletion of the gut microbiota with oral antibiotics leads to fewer plasma cells and immune cells in the gastrointestinal lymph nodes and lamina propria. This suggests impaired immune surveillance.

– In rats, oral vancomycin administration was associated with decreased production of secretory immunoglobulin A (IgA), an antibody critical for gut immunity.

– There are some case reports of people developing gastrointestinal infections like C. difficile colitis following vancomycin use, suggesting the antibiotic may have disrupted normal gut immunologic defenses.

Systemic effects on immunity

While the evidence above indicates oral vancomycin may affect gut immunity, less clear is whether vancomycin suppresses systemic immune function outside of the gastrointestinal tract when given intravenously:

– Some studies indicate IV vancomycin has limited impact on systemic innate immunity. For example, one study found no significant differences in levels of cytokines, complement proteins, or leukocytes among patients given IV vancomycin versus other antibiotics.

– Several randomized controlled trials found no increase in infections or compromised immune parameters among patients receiving IV vancomycin versus alternative antibiotics. This suggests the systemic immune system remains largely intact.

– One study reported a higher rate of systemic C. difficile infection among intensive care unit patients receiving IV vancomycin. However, the role of vancomycin was unclear as all patients had severe underlying illness and antibiotic exposure.

– Cases of systemic immune suppression like leukopenia, thrombocytopenia, and interstitial nephritis have been reported with IV vancomycin. However, these side effects are very rare.

Overall, there is minimal evidence that IV vancomycin substantially weakens systemic immunity when used appropriately for serious bacterial infections. The benefits appear to outweigh the risks in most cases.

Role in antibiotic-associated immunosuppression

While vancomycin may have limited effects on immunity itself, some research suggests it could play an indirect role in antibiotic-associated immunosuppression when used in combination with other broad-spectrum antibiotics.

In particular, synergistic combinations of vancomycin plus antibiotics like piperacillin-tazobactam, cefepime, and carbapenem have been associated with higher rates of mortality and secondary infections like pneumonia in intensive care unit patients compared to vancomycin alone.

Researchers propose several potential mechanisms for this phenomenon:

– The combination of vancomycin and broad-spectrum antibiotics more thoroughly deplete protective gut microbiota. This leads to greater impairment of mucosal immunity compared to vancomycin alone.

– Adding vancomycin to other antibiotics extends the duration of disruption of the microbiome. Prolonged dysbiosis is linked to weakened gut immunity.

– Broad immune effects of antibiotics like toll-like receptor downregulation and impaired leukocyte function may be magnified when vancomycin is given concurrently.

Therefore, while vancomycin itself may not significantly depress systemic immunity at therapeutic doses, its use in combination regimens that cause extended disruption of the microbiome may increase the risk of immunosuppression. This risk should be considered when prescribing vancomycin empirically with other antibiotics, especially in critically ill patients. The combination should be de-escalated when possible based on culture data.

Effects in immunocompromised patients

While vancomycin does not substantially impair immunity in most patients populations, there are some concerns about increased toxicity in immunocompromised individuals. These include:

– Bone marrow transplant patients: There are reports of elevated kidney toxicity in patients receiving vancomycin following bone marrow transplantation. Impaired immunity may increase susceptibility to vancomycin-associated kidney injury. Prolonged high trough levels further increase risk. Careful therapeutic drug monitoring is recommended if vancomycin is used in these patients.

– HIV/AIDS: Rates of red man syndrome may be increased with vancomycin in patients with advanced HIV/AIDS. Slow infusion over at least 60 minutes can help reduce risk. Patients should be monitored closely for signs of an infusion reaction.

– Cancer: Nephrotoxicity and ototoxicity linked to vancomycin have been reported in patients undergoing chemotherapy. While direct immunosuppression was not confirmed, chemotherapy likely contributed to increased susceptibility to adverse effects.

– Organ transplant: Vancomycin has been associated with higher rates of kidney injury in liver and lung transplant patients. Impaired immunity and multiple nephrotoxic medications likely increase susceptibility. Trough levels should be carefully controlled.

Overall, while vancomycin does not directly cause clinically significant immunosuppression in patients with weakened immune systems, underlying immunocompromise may increase susceptibility to certain adverse effects. Close monitoring is advisable in these populations, especially critically ill patients in the ICU.


Based on currently available evidence, vancomycin does not appear to substantially suppress systemic immune function when used intravenously at typical therapeutic doses. However, oral vancomycin likely impairs mucosal immunity in the gastrointestinal tract by depleting gut microbiota populations. The use of vancomycin in combination with other broad antibiotics may also indirectly increase the risk of immunosuppression when given empirically by exacerbating microbiome dysbiosis. While immunocompromised patients do not seem at higher risk for direct vancomycin-induced immune suppression, their underlying condition may increase susceptibility to certain adverse effects like kidney injury. Overall, the benefits of prompt vancomycin use to treat serious resistant bacterial infections appears to outweigh the small risks of immunosuppression in most patient populations. Careful monitoring and timely de-escalation to narrower therapy is recommended to reduce the risk of complications.