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LiverTox: Clinical and Research Information on Drug-Induced Liver Injury [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; 2012-.


Last Update: August 10, 2017.



Clarithromycin is a semisynthetic macrolide antibiotic used for a wide variety of mild-to-moderate bacterial infections. Clarithromycin has been linked to rare instances of acute liver injury that can be severe and even fatal.


Clarithromycin (kla rith" roe mye' sin) is a semisynthetic macrolide antibiotic used widely to treat mild-to-moderate bacterial infections caused by sensitive agents. Clarithromycin, like other macrolide antibiotics such such as eythromycin and azithromycin, is bacteriostatic against many gram positive bacteria including many strains of streptococci, staphylococci, clostridia, corynebacteria, listeria, haemophilus sp., moxicella, and Neisseria meningitidis. Clarithromycin is also active against Chlamydia pneumoniae, Helicobacter pylori, and several atypical mycobacteria. Macrolide antibiotics act by inhibiting protein synthesis of bacteria by binding to the 50S ribosomal element. Resistance occurs by several mechanisms. Clarithromycin was approved for use in the United States in 1993, and currently more than 3 million prescriptions are filled yearly. Typical indications are for upper respiratory infections, bronchitis, sinusitis, community acquired pneumonia, and skin and tissue infections. Clarithromycin is also used for infections caused by Chlamydia pneumoniae, Helicobacter pylori and atypical mycobacteria. Clarithromycin is available in tablets of 250 and 500 mg generically under several commercial names including Biaxin, Claripen and Clacid. Extended release formulations are also available. The typical course is 250 to 500 mg twice daily (or 1000 mg extended release tablets once daily) for 7 to 14 days. Clarithromycin is given chronically in some situations such as prophylaxis against mycobacterium avium complex in patients with HIV infection. Clarithromycin is generally well tolerated, but side effects can include nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea, dyspepsia, headache, dizziness, angioedema and rash.


Clarithromycin, like other macrolide antibiotics, has been linked to a low rate of acute, transient and usually asymptomatic elevations in serum aminotransferase levels which occur in 1% to 2% of patients treated for short periods and a somewhat higher proportion of patients given clarithromycin long term. Asymptomatic elevations in serum enzymes are particularly common among elderly patients given higher doses of clarithromycin.

Clarithromycin can also cause acute, clinically apparent liver injury with jaundice, which is estimated to occur in 3.8 per 100,000 prescriptions. The liver injury usually appears within the first 1 to 3 weeks after initiation of treatment and can arise after clarithromycin is stopped. The pattern of liver enzyme elevations varies, but the resulting hepatitis is often cholestatic and can be prolonged (Case 1). Allergic signs and symptoms have not been consistently reported. While cholestatic hepatitis is most typical of clarithromycin induced liver injury, rare cases with hepatocellular injury and abrupt onset have been described. These hepatocellular cases are more likely to be severe and can result in acute liver failure. However, in most instances, recovery occurs within 4 to 8 weeks of withdrawal of the medication. The typical latency, clinical pattern and course of the cholestatic hepatitis due to clarithromycin resembles that of the other macrolide antibiotics.

Likelihood score: B (highly likely cause of clinically apparent liver injury).

Mechanism of Liver Injury

The cause of the idiosyncratic liver injury due to clarithromycin is unknown, but the rapidity of onset and prompt recurrence upon rechallenge suggests hypersensitivity. Clarithromycin is extensively metabolized by the microsomal cytochrome P450 system and is a potent inhibitor of CYP 3A4, for which reason it can cause serious drug-drug interactions with agents that are metabolized by CYP 3A4 such as siapride, terfenadine, ergotamine, colchicine, amlodipine, diltiazem and many statins and benzodiazepines. Thus, in some situations, clarithromycin may lead to liver injury from a concurrent medication because of a decrease in its metabolism and increased blood levels.

Outcome and Management

The minor serum aminotransferase elevations that appear during therapy with clarithromycin are usually benign, asymptomatic and resolve rapidly whether or not clarithromycin is stopped. The acute hepatic injury with jaundice, however, can be prolonged and troublesome and lead to loss of intrahepatic bile ducts and vanishing bile duct syndrome. Rare instances of fatality from clarithromycin induced liver disease have been reported. It is unclear whether there is cross sensivity to hepatic injury about the different macrolide antibiotics, but after severe injury from one macrolide, it is prudent to avoid use of the others.

Drug Class: Antiinfective Agents, Macrolide Antibiotics


Case 1. Cholestatic hepatitis after clarithromycin.

[Modified from: Sousa C, Correia J, Santos J, Silvestre F, Bernardo A. [Cholestatic hepatitis probably induced by clarithromycin] Gastroenterol Clin Biol 1997; 21: 632-3. French. PubMed Citation]

A 74 year old man with acute bronchitis was treated with a 10 day course of clarithromycin (500 mg daily) and developed nausea and jaundice by day 7. Because of itching and worsening symptoms, he sought medical advice and was hospitalized. He was jaundiced and had right upper quadrant tenderness over the liver, but was not febrile. He denied a history of alcohol intake and had no risk factors for viral hepatitis. Laboratory tests showed marked elevations in alkaline phosphatase and bilirubin levels with moderate increases in ALT and AST levels. He tested negative for markers of hepatitis A, B and C, had low levels of antinuclear and anti-smooth muscle antibody, and liver ultrasound was normal. A liver biopsy showed intrahepatic cholestasis with centrolobular ballooning degeneration, portal inflammation with a prominence of eosinophils, and ductular proliferation. His other medications that he took chronically were stopped at the same time. He recovered over the next few weeks and all liver tests were normal in follow up 3 months later.

Key Points

Medication:Clarithromycin (500 mg daily for 10 days)
Pattern:Cholestatic (R=0.6)
Severity:3+ (jaundice and hospitalization)
Latency:1 week
Recovery:Complete within three months
Other medications:Digoxin, captopril, nitropaste, aminophylline, salbutamol, and budesonide (by inhalation) for several years

Laboratory Values

Time After StartingTime After StoppingAST
Alk P
Bilirubin* (mg/dL)Other
Nausea and jaundice arose on day 7 of a 10 day course of clarithromycin
2 weeks5 days520309025.1Admission
3 weeks11 days256247730.4Liver Biopsy
4 weeks18 days15511088.5
5 weeks27 days844454.0
3 months3 months191170.8
Normal Values <33 <117 <1.2

* Converted from µmol (1.0 mg/dL = 17.1 µmol).


A convincing history for drug induced liver disease and the only new medication taken was clarithromycin. The latency was short (one week) as is typical for macrolide induced hepatotoxicity, and the pattern of liver enzyme elevations was cholestatic which also is typical. Despite the patient’s age and depth of jaundice, recovery was complete, taking somewhat longer than usual for this form of drug induced liver injury probably because of the height of the bilirubin and alkaline phosphatase elevations.


Clinical cases of drug-induced liver injury that have been submitted to LiverTox ("Submit a Case Report") are available for review. Most of these reference cases are from the Drug-Induced Liver Injury Network, but others are from users of LiverTox who have submitted data from an actual clinical case. All cases have been reviewed and cleared of personal identifiers and a brief comment added by the LiverTox editors. Click on the following link to view the submitted case reports that have been made publically available.

Submitted Cases on Clarithromycin



Clarithromycin — Generic, Biaxin®


Antiinfective Agents


Product labeling at DailyMed, National Library of Medicine, NIH


Clarithromycin 81103-11-9 C38-H69-N-O13
Clarithromycin structure


References updated: 10 August 2017

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    (In a health care database of 429,772 children in Italy and the Netherlands followed between 2008 and 2010, 938 cases of liver injury of uncertain cause were identified, the rate being higher in those with current use of antibiotics [12% vs 3.6%] for an adjusted odds rate ratio [aOR] of 3.2; specific antibiotics most commonly implicated were fluoroquinolones [19.0], cephalosporins [4.5], macrolides [3.5] and penicillins [2.6], and specific aOR for clarithromycin of 5.6 [12 cases]).
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    (Among 363 patients with drug induced liver injury who underwent liver biopsy, 26 [7%] had bile duct loss, including 2 cases attributed to azithromycin, but none to clarithromycin or other macrolides).