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Crit Care. 2011;15(1):R18. doi: 10.1186/cc9963. Epub 2011 Jan 13.

Antibiotics or probiotics as preventive measures against ventilator-associated pneumonia: a literature review.

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  • 1Department of Intensive Care Medicine, Academic Medical Center, University of Amsterdam, Meibergdreef 9, 1105 AZ Amsterdam, The Netherlands.



Mechanically ventilated critically ill patients frequently develop ventilator-associated pneumonia (VAP), a life-threatening complication. Proposed preventive measures against VAP include, but are not restricted to, selective decontamination of the digestive tract (SDD), selective oropharyngeal decontamination (SOD) and the use of probiotics. Probiotics are live bacteria that could have beneficial effects on the host by altering gastrointestinal flora. Similar to SDD and SOD, a prescription of probiotics aims at the prevention of secondary colonization of the upper and/or lower digestive tract.


We performed a literature review to describe the differences and similarities between SDD/SOD and probiotic preventive strategies, focusing on (a) efficacy, (b) risks, and (c) the routing of these strategies.


Reductions in the incidence of VAP have been achieved with SDD and SOD. Two large randomized controlled trials even showed reduced mortality with these preventive strategies. Randomized controlled trials of probiotic strategies also showed a reduction of the incidence of VAP, but trials were too small to draw firm conclusions. Preventive strategies with antibiotics and probiotics may be limited due to the risk of emerging resistance to the locally applied antibiotics and the risk of probiotic-related infections, respectively. The majority of trials of SDD and SOD did not exhaustively address the issue of emerging resistance. Likewise, trials of probiotic strategies did not adequately address the risk of colonization with probiotics and probiotic-related infection. In studies of SDD and SOD the preventive strategy aimed at decontamination of the oral cavity, throat, stomach and intestines, and the oral cavity and throat, respectively. In the vast majority of studies of probiotic therapy the preventive strategy aimed at decontamination of the stomach and intestines.


Prophylactic use of antibiotics in critically ill patients is effective in reducing the incidence of VAP. Probiotic strategies deserve consideration in future well-powered trials. Future studies are needed to determine if preventive antibiotic and probiotic strategies are safe with regard to development of antibiotic resistance and probiotic infections. It should be determined whether the efficacy of probiotics improves when these agents are provided to the mouth and the intestines simultaneously.

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