The problem with Z-packs

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - An antibiotic so popular many people know it by name has some unpopular attention from the federal government. The Food and Drug Administration has said that this could be a matter of life and death for some patients who use azithromycin, which is also known as Zithromax or Z-pack.

The human heart can beat 100,000 times per day and never stop for as long as it lives.

"It is very durable but you can still die in an instant from a rhythm problem," said Dr. Darren Peress, a cardiac electrophysiologist.  He showed a readout of heart activity.

"This is an electrocardiogram.  It's a tracing of the heart rhythm," he said, and pointed to a line that showed how that particular heart went from normal beats to an ineffective spasm.

"For the first two beats, it would be beating normally and then here you can see there's very little time between beats and it's just kind of doing this," he said, as he quickly opened and closed his fingers in shallow movements to represent a heart racing.

That effect has the FDA worried about the popular antibiotic azithromycin.  It has issued a warning about the five-day z-pack treatment that it could cause a heart attack and that doctors and nurses should be especially careful about prescribing it to people with certain heart problems.

"This always seemed like a good one that people weren't harmed by, and now we've heard that some people could actually die from it," said primary care physician Dr. William Abraham.

That means doctors could actually begin to lower the number of prescriptions they give for the antibiotic.  Doctor Abraham said that he avoids giving Z-packs to those at-risk patients.  But he also said that those patients are few and far between.  He still prescribes it several times a week and keeps some on hand for his own loved ones.

"It's the antibiotic most people tolerate, including my family, better than any other," he said.

"I just happen to have taken it years ago and I think it did help me and I've heard of other people that it helped," said Don Gallardo, who said that he had been prescribed Azithromycin back in the 1990's.

"(It was prescribed to me) for strep throat and it worked fined.  It was actually perfect.  We were going on a trip and I needed a quick fix, and it helped me," said Wendy Dahms, who said that she used a Z-pack about a year ago.

Both Dahms and Gallardo said that Z-pack works.  But they respect the warning.

"If I had a heart problem and they told me it could cause some kind of reaction, of course I wouldn't do it.  But, I think it's great because it really does work," Dahms said.

"I didn't have a problem with it, but, perhaps people with heart conditions, they shouldn't take it," Gallardo said.

"I think it is good to be warned so that we can watch out for those who already have pre-existing cardiac disease but not unduly worry about the average person," Dr. Abraham said.

Among the two doctors, Z-pack seem no more risky than other antibiotics.  And they're not worried about giving it to patients who don't have heart problems.

"It is blown out of proportion for the average person," Dr. Abraham said.

"It's probably an overestimate of its risk," Dr. Peress said.

There are 50-thousand people in this country that fall under that at-risk group, who have a particular type of heart beat.

If you're concerned, you can always ask your doctor about what if any risk you face and get an electrocardiogram that tracks your heart activity.

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