Use of penicillin is limited by the fact that, although it causes fewer side effects than many other antibiotics, it causes allergic sensitivity in many individuals, including skin reactions and allergic shock. In addition, many microorganisms have developed resistance to the penicillins, and serious hospital epidemics involving infants and surgical patients have been caused by penicillin-resistant staphylococci (see drug resistance). Some organisms are resistant because they produce an enzyme, penicillinase, that destroys the antibiotic. Synthetically produced penicillins such as methicillin and oxacillin have been developed that are not degraded by the penicillinase enzyme, but these new penicillins have no effect on bacteria that have developed resistance by other means, e.g., by altered cell wall structure. Other antibiotics, such as erythromycin, have become important in treating infections by microorganisms resistant to penicillin.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.