Underdosing in obesity-an epidemic: focus on antibiotics


Obesity is associated with an increased risk of infection. Unfortunately clinical trials examining the safety and efficacy of antibiotics in obese patients are deficient. Thus, clinicians predominately rely on pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic data for appropriate antibiotic dosing. The current literature for vancomycin, aminoglycosides, beta-lactams, fluoroquinolones, linezolid, and macrolides was reviewed to evaluate appropriate dosing in obese patients. Due to the limited number of studies and various pharmacokinetic parameters of antibiotics, dosing should be based on both patient- and drug-specific factors.



Obesity is associated with an increased risk of infection. Unfortunately clinical trials examining the safety and efficacy of antibiotics in obese patients are deficient. Thus, clinicians predominately rely on pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic data for appropriate antibiotic dosing. The current literature for vancomycin, aminoglycosides, beta-lactams, fluoroquinolones, linezolid, and macrolides was reviewed to evaluate appropriate dosing in obese patients. Due to the limited number of studies and various pharmacokinetic parameters of antibiotics, dosing should be based on both patient- and drug-specific factors.

Obesity is a growing problem in the United States. Currently, 68% of adult Americans are overweight (body mass index [BMI] >25 kg/m2).1 Of those, 35% are obese (BMI >30 kg/m2) and 6% are morbidly obese (BMI >40 kg/m2) (table 1).1-4 Between 2000 and 2005, the prevalence of a BMI >30 kg/m2 increased by 24%, BMI >40 kg/m2 increased by 52%, and BMI >50 kg/m2 increased by 75%.3 It is estimated that by 2030, 51% of the population will be obese and 11% will be morbidly obese.1 Obese patients have an increased risk of infection and a higher mortality rate.5 We are often confronted with dosing antibiotic agents in obese patients. Unfortunately, trials focusing on optimal dosing in obese patients are scarce. Underdosing antibiotics may increase the risk of treatment failure, unnecessary escalation to broader-spectrum antibiotics, resistance, and possibly death.5

Pharmacokinetic studies show that the volume of distribution (VD) of lipophilic drugs and the clearance of hydrophilic drugs can be increased in obese patients. Water-soluble drugs may distribute to extracellular fluid in adipose tissue, slightly increasing the VD; however, this difference may not be significant.4 Hydrophilic medications that are renally eliminated have increased clearance in obese patients.6 Based on these kinetic findings, it can be difficult to ensure adequate drug concentrations or time above minimum inhibitory concentrations (MIC) in obese patients.   



The Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA) recommends a dosage of vancomycin of 15 to 20 mg/kg every 8 to 12 hours for most patients with normal renal function.7 Two institutions compared weight-based dosing regimens and found that obese patients received the IDSA recommended dose in less than 1%, compared with 46% of normal-weight patients.8 Two additional studies found a shorter half-life and increased clearance in obese patients compared to nonobese patients, with a direct correlation between total body weight (TBW) and both clearance and VD. These pharmacokinetic changes result in higher cumulative daily doses.9,10 One institution noted supratherapeutic concentrations in obese patients who were given 15 mg/kg every 8 to 12 hours. The protocol was amended to 10 mg/kg every 12 hours or 15 mg/kg every 24 hours with no dose capping. The revised protocol had significantly higher therapeutic vancomycin troughs (59% versus 35%) and decreased supratherapeutic troughs (18% versus 55%). However, there were increased subtherapeutic troughs (23% versus 9%). Rates of nephrotoxicity were similar in both groups.11 Based on the high number of subtherapeutic troughs when using ideal body weight (IBW), TBW should be used to determine the appropriate dosage, with an interval based on the patient’s renal function; however, initial dose capping may be appropriate. With limited antibiotics to treat methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus infections, it is imperative to maintain adequate trough concentrations to prevent the emergence of vancomycin-resistant organisms.7


Standardized approaches to weight-based aminoglycoside dosing have been derived from pharmacokinetic trials. Using TBW accepts that drug-specific pharmacokinetic parameters increase in proportion to body size; unfortunately, this tends to overshoot desired therapeutic concentrations and increases the risk for toxicities.12–14 Using IBW relies solely on a patient’s gender and height and tends to underdose and increase risk for treatment failure.13 Utilizing protocols that emphasize dosing based on the patient’s adjusted body weight (IBW + 0.4 [TBW − IBW]), with a frequency based on the patient’s renal function and adjusting regimens based on peaks and troughs for conventional dosing and midinterval for extended-interval dosing, may be useful in practice.12


Beta-lactam antibiotics are hydrophilic and do not distribute well into adipose tissue. These antibiotics are time-dependent, and underdosing might yield concentrations below the MIC resulting in antibiotic failure.15 One study of preoperative cefazolin found a positive correlation with TBW and VD, but no correlation with clearance.16 A 2 g dose of cefazolin in morbidly obese patients achieved similar adipose and serum concentrations as did a 1 g dose in nonobese patients. In morbidly obese patients, the 2 g dose resulted in a significant decrease in postoperative infections compared to the 1 g dose (10.9%).17 A study examining cefepime in obese patients found that 2 g must be given every 8 hours to ensure that the percentage of time greater than the MIC (%t>MIC) is at least 60%. Signs of toxicity were not observed.18   

A case report evaluated piperacillin-tazobactam 3.375 g every 4 hours for treatment of a Pseudomonas aeruginosa wound infection in a morbidly obese patient. Serum concentrations were below normal nonobese concentrations for greater than 50% of the dosing interval, and an increased VD was observed. Based on MICs of 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, and 128 mg/L, %t>MIC were 100%, 100%, 90.9%, 55.4%, 19.88%, 0%, and 0%, respectively.19 Another case report in which 4 g was used every 6 hours reported an increased VD and clearance; however, a desirable %t>MIC of 60% was obtained.20

One institution implemented therapeutic drug monitoring and found that cefepime 2 g and piperacillin-tazobactam 4 g obtained similar proportion of therapeutic concentrations in critically ill obese and nonobese patients. In patients not receiving continual renal replacement therapy, more obese patients receiving meropenem 1 g had subtherapeutic concentrations compared to nonobese patients (35% versus 0%).21  

A 1 g dose of ertapenem yielded a higher area under the curve (AUC) in normal-weight patients compared to obese and morbidly obese patients. A nonsignificant decrease in clearance with an increased BMI was seen, suggesting a modest decrease in drug exposure in obese and morbidly obese patients.22 A post-hoc analysis found no difference in cure rates between obese and nonobese patients treated with ertapenem for a complicated intra-abdominal infection.23 However, another post-hoc analysis found an increased incidence of surgical-site infection in patients with a BMI ≥30 kg/m2 compared with those with BMI <30 kg/m2 (26.7% vs. 12.7%, respectively) after elective colorectal surgery.24

Extended or continuous infusions of piperacillin-tazobactam and carbapenems are associated with a lower mortality rate. These regimens have been shown to increase the %t>MIC and the probability of target trough attainment. However, these dosing strategies have not been studied in the obese patient population.19,25,26 Inconsistent and limited results in therapeutic outcomes suggest that clinicians should consider dosing beta-lactams within the upper limit of normal for obese patients, with the most amount of evidence supporting cefazolin 2 g, cefepime 2 g, and piperacillin-tazobactam 4 g, (4.5 g available in the US) with an interval adjusted for renal function.16−21,27


There are no specific recommendations for dosing fluoroquinolones in obese patients. A statistically significant decrease was noted in maximum plasma concentrations (Cmax) and AUC in obese patients compared to nonobese patients when administered 400 mg intravenous ciprofloxacin.28 Drug clearance and VD were significantly increased; however, no difference was noted in the half-life. Ciprofloxacin distributes less to adipose tissue than other tissues, but partial distribution does occur. When dosing ciprofloxacin based on TBW, one study found higher Cmax and AUC in obese patients; however, interstitial-space fluid of skeletal muscle and subcutaneous adipose tissue Cmax and AUC were not significantly greater. Therefore, due to impaired skeletal muscle and adipose tissue penetration, increased dosages of ciprofloxacin may be required in order to appropriately treat some systemic infections.29 In a case report on a 226-kg patient who received ciprofloxacin 800 mg intravenously every 12 hours, therapeutic serum concentrations were obtained at the given dose.30 A study that assessed the pharmacokinetics of moxifloxacin in morbidly obese patients noted that the VD and clearance were not significantly altered.31 Similar results have been reported with levofloxacin. One case study reported that when a morbidly obese patient was administered a TBW-adjusted levofloxacin dose of 4 mg/kg every 12 hours (750 mg every 12 hours), the Cmax and clearance were the same as in nonobese patients receiving 750 mg every 24 hours but the AUC was double.32 Another study compared an intravenous dose of levofloxacin 750 mg in hospitalized and healthy ambulatory care obese patients (BMI >35 mg/m2). Peak concentrations and VD were similar to what has been reported in normal-weight patients. Overall, the half-life and AUC were similar to nonobese patients; however, the AUC was significantly lower and the clearance was significantly faster in the healthy patients  than in the hospitalized patients, demonstrating potential variability in pharmacokinetics in acute illness.33 Based on available data, ciprofloxacin may be the only fluoroquinolone affected by obesity, and doses up to 800 mg should be considered in order to achieve adequate tissue penetration.


Multiple small studies have examined linezolid use in obese patients. Although there appears to be a decrease in serum concentrations and increased clearance compared to nonobese patients, this does not appear to affect the efficacy of the drug. Based on the available data, it would be appropriate to continue using traditional 600 mg twice daily dosing in obese patients.34,35


Data for macrolides are severely lacking. Erythromycin base was found to have similar peak concentration in obese and nonobese patients.15 In patients being treated for Helicobacter pylori with triple therapy including clarithromycin, patients with a BMI >25 kg/m2 had lower rates of eradication compared to normal-BMI patients (55% vs. 85.4%).36 Another study found improved efficacy rates for eradication in obese patients with 14 days of clarithromycin-based triple therapy compared to 7 days (80% versus 67%).37 Based on these data, it would be feasible to increase the dosage or duration of macrolide treatment.

The IDSA recommends implementing an antimicrobial stewardship program (ASP) as one of the most effective approaches to improving antimicrobial use. Dose optimization based on patient characteristics and pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic properties of antibiotics is one strategy that is recommended. Additional key aspects of an ASP that may help prevent underdosing of antibiotics include education, evidence-based institutional guidelines, and antimicrobial order forms.38 Some institutions have adopted antibiotic dosing guidelines for obese patients; unfortunately, adherence rates were extremely low for the targeted antibiotics (1.2% to 8%). The authors concluded that additional education is required to improve adherence rates.39   

Dosing based on TBW assumes that pharmacokinetic parameters increase in proportion to body size, whereas fixed dosing does not.14 Most of the recommendations for dosing antibiotics are derived from small pharmacokinetic studies or case reports with limited supporting safety data. There is a lack of published data comparing the different grades of obesity and the appropriate dosages to achieve therapeutic concentrations. Because of this, dosing in obesity should be drug specific. Efforts must be made to ensure appropriate prescribing of antibiotics that have increased dosing requirements in obese patients to improve patient outcomes and prevent the emergence of antibiotic resistance.


1.     Go AS, Mozaffarian D, Roger VL, et al, on behalf of the American Heart Association Statistics Committee and Stroke Statistics Subcommittee. Heart disease and stroke statistics-2013 update: a report from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2013;127:e6–e245.

2.     Sturm R, Hattori A. Morbid obesity rates continue to rise rapidly in the United States. Int J Obes (Lond). 2012 Sep 18 [Epub ahead of print].

3.     Sturm R. Increases in morbid obesity in the USA: 2000−2005. Public Health. 2007;121:492−496.

4.     Hanley MJ, Abernethy DR, Greenblat DJ. Effect of obesity on the pharmacokinetics of drugs in humans. Clin Pharmacokinet. 2010;49:71−87.

5.     Falagas ME, Athanasoulia AP, Peppas G, Karageorgopoulos DE. Effect of body mass index on the outcome of infections: a systematic review. Obes Rev. 2009;10:280−289.

6.     Bauer LA. Chapter 3. Drug dosing in special populations: renal and hepatic disease, dialysis, heart failure, obesity, and drug interactions. In: Bauer LA, ed. Applied Clinical Pharmacokinetics. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008. http://www.accesspharmacy.com/content.aspx?aID=3518709. Accessed May 10, 2013.

7.     Rybak M, Lomaestro B, Rotschafer JC, et al. Therapeutic monitoring of vancomycin in adult patients: a consensus review of the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, and the Society of Infectious Diseases Pharmacists. Am J Health Syst Pharm. 2009;66:82−98.

8.     Hall RG, Payne KD, Bain AM, et al. Multicenter evaluation of vancomycin dosing: emphasis on obesity. Am J Med. 2008;121:515−518.

9.     Bauer LA, Black DJ, Lill JS. Vancomycin dosing in morbidly obese patients. Eur J Clin Pharmacol. 1998;54:621−625.

10.  Blouin RA, Bauer LA, Miller DD, Record KE, Griffen WO Jr. Vancomycin pharmacokinetics in normal and morbidly obese subjects. Antimicrob Agents Chemother. 1982;21:575−580.

11.  Reynolds DC, Waite LH, Alexander DP, DeRyke CA. Performance of a vancomycin dosage regimen developed for obese patients. Am J Health Syst Pharm. 2012;69:944−950.

12.  Pai MP, Bearden DT. Antimicrobial dosing considerations in obese adult patients: insights from the Society of Infectious Diseases Pharmacists. Pharmacotherapy. 2007;27:1081−1091.

13.  Pai MP, Nafziger AN, Bertino JS Jr. Simplified estimation of aminoglycoside pharmacokinetics in underweight and obese adult patients. Antimicrob Agents Chemother. 2011;55:4006−4011.

14.  Pai MP. Drug dosing based on weight and body surface area: mathematical assumptions and limitations in obese adults. Pharmacotherapy. 2012;32:856−868.

15.  Wurtz R, Itokazu G, Rodvold K. Antimicrobial dosing in obese patients. Clin Infect Dis. 1997;25:112−118.

16.  van Kralingen S, Taks M, Diepstraten J, et al. Pharmacokinetics and protein binding of cefazolin in morbidly obese patients. Eur J Clin Pharmacol. 2011;67:985−992.

17.  Forse RA, Karam B, MacLean LD, Christou NV. Antibiotic prophylaxis for surgery in morbidly obese patients. Surgery. 1989;106:750−756.

18.  Rich BS, Keel R, Ho VP, et al. Cefepime dosing in the morbidly obese patient population. Obes Surg. 2012;22:465−471.

19.  Newman D, Scheetz MH, Adeyemi OA, et al. Serum piperacillin/tazobactam pharmacokinetics in a morbidly obese individual. Ann Pharmacother. 2007;41:1734−1739.

20.  Deman H, Verhaegen J, Willems L, Spriet I. Dosing of piperacillin/tazobactam in a morbidly obese patient [letter]. J Antimicrob Chemother. 2012;67:782−783.

21.  Hites M, Taccone FS, Wolff F, et al. Case-control study of drug monitoring of β-lactams in obese critically ill patients. Antimicrob Agents Chemother. 2013;57:708−715.

22.  Chen M, Nafziger AN, Drusano GL, Ma L, Bertino JS Jr. Comparative pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamic target attainment of ertapenem in normal-weight, obese, and extremely obese adults. Antimicrob Agents Chemother. 2006;50:1222−1227.

23.  Zakrison TL, Hille DA, Namias N. Effect of body mass index on treatment of complicated intra-abdominal infections in hospitalized adults: comparison of ertapenem with piperacillin-tazobactam.

Surg Infect (Larchmt). 2012;13:38−42.

24.  Itani KM, Jensen EH, Finn TS, Tomassini JE, Abramson MA. Effect of body mass index and ertapenem versus cefotetan prophylaxis on surgical site infection in elective colorectal surgery. SurgInfect (Larchmt). 2008;9:131−137.

25.  Kaufman SE, Donnell RW, Hickey WS. Rationale and evidence for extended infusion of piperacillin-tazobactam. Am J Health Syst Pharm. 2011;68:1521−1526.

26.  Falagas ME, Tansarli GS, Ikawa K, Vardakas KZ. Clinical outcomes with extended or continuous versus short-term intravenous infusion of carbapenems and piperacillin/tazobactam: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Clin Infect Dis. 2013;56:272−282.

27.  Zosyn piperacillin and tazobactum [package insert]. Philadelphia, PA: Wyeth Pharmaceuticals Inc.; May 2012.

28.  Allard S, Kinzig M, Boivin G, Sörgel F, LeBel M. Intravenous ciprofloxacin disposition in obesity. Clin Pharmacol Ther. 1993;54:368−373.

29.  Hollenstein UM, Brunner M, Schmid R, Müller M. Soft tissue concentrations of ciprofloxacin in obese and lean subjects following weight-adjusted dosing. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2001;25:354−358.

30.  Caldwell JB, Nilsen AK. Intravenous ciprofloxacin dosing in a morbidly obese patient. AnnPharmacother. 1994;28:806.

31.  Kees MG, Weber S, Kees F, Horbach T. Pharmacokinetics of moxifloxacin in plasma and tissue of morbidly obese patients. J Antimicrob Chemother. 2011;66:2330−2335.

32.  Luque S, Grau S, Valle M, Colino CI, Ferrer A. Levofloxacin weight-adjusted dosing and pharmacokinetic disposition in a morbidly obese patient [letter]. J Antimicrob Chemother. 2011;66:1653−1654.

33.  Cook AM, Martin C, Adams VR, Morehead RS. Pharmacokinetics of intravenous levofloxacin administered at 750 milligrams in obese adults. Antimicrob Agents Chemother. 2011;55:3240−3243.

34.  Bhalodi AA, Papasavas PK, Tishler DS, Nicolau DP, Kuti JL. Pharmacokinetics of intravenous linezolid in moderately to morbidly obese adults. Antimicrob Agents Chemother. 2013;57:1144−1149.

35.  Stein GE, Schooley SL, Peloquin CA, et al. Pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics of linezolid in obese patients with cellulitis. AnnPharmacother. 2005;39:427−432.

36.  Abdullahi M, Annibale B, Capoccia D, et al. The eradication of Helicobacter pylori is affected by body mass index (BMI). Obes Surg. 2008;18:1450−1454.

37.  Cerqueira RM, Manso MC, Correia MR, et al. Helicobacter pylori eradication therapy in obese patients undergoing gastric bypass surgery-fourteen days superior to seven days? Obes Surg. 2011;21:1377−1381.

38.  Dellit TH, Owens RC, McGowan JE Jr, et al. Infectious Diseases Society of America and the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America guidelines for developing an institutional program to enhance antimicrobial stewardship. Clin Infect Dis. 2007;44:159−177.

39.  Roe JL, Fuentes JM, Mullins ME. Underdosing of common antibiotics for obese patients in the ED. Am J Emerg Med. 2012;30:1212−1214.


Body Mass Index
Normal weight
Obese class I
Obese class II
Obese class III


Dr Buehler is assistant professor of pharmacy practice, Department of Pharmacy Practice, St. Louis College of Pharmacy, St. Louis; Dr Yancey is associate professor of pharmacy practice, department of pharmacy practice, St. Louis College of Pharmacy, St. Louis. 

The authors report no financial disclosures as related to products discussed in this article.

Related Videos
Related Content
© 2024 MJH Life Sciences

All rights reserved.