A healthy immune response to a bacterial infection includes "memory" to permit the body to thwart subsequent exposure to same bacteria. What are the dynamics of using antibiotics on initial exposure to the bacteria regarding a possible degradation of the quality of this "memory" and thus the body's possibly compromised ability to fight a repeat exposure to same bacteria ?

I am not speaking of vaccines ... focus here is on bacteria


2 Answers 2


A quick search on ISI Web of Knowledge yielded this paper:

R J North, P A Berche and M F Newborg (1981) Immunologic consequences of antibiotic-induced abridgement of bacterial infection: effect on generation and loss of protective T cells and level of immunologic memory. Journal of Immunology 127: 342-346

The authors investigated the effects of ampicillin treatement in mice infected with Listeria monocytogenes. They reported an abridgement of T cell-mediated antibacterial immunity and in particular an effect upon the development of memory:

Moreover, Ampicillin-induced abridgement of infection, either before or at the time of peak primary response, resulted in the expression of greatly reduced levels of immunologic memory at a later time. This indicates that memory cells are generated throughout the entire course of the primary anti-Listeria response, including the period of its decay.

Presumably any treatment that reduces the need for an immune response will have an effect upon the production of useful memory T cells.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It is also conceivable that the increased presence of the interior (cytosol) and cell wall parts of dead or dying bacteria will cause an enlarged adapted immunity response. I remember that EHEC patients were specifically not treated with antibiotics from fear of freeing more toxins from dead bacteria. $\endgroup$
    – R Stephan
    Commented Aug 29, 2012 at 17:37

Edited for Clarity:

In order to invoke a memory response or create a memory response, there must be interaction with the Adaptive Immune System (usually CD40+ "Helper" T-Cells), and the interaction must come in the form of a protein since the MHC receptors only respond to proteins.

Antibiotics are usually smaller macromolecules that directly cause slower growth or kill the microbe. They will *not* create or illicit a memory response because they are not presented to the immune system to initiate the proper procedure, and may not be proteins and unable to be presented in the first place.

If you're asking about vaccines (which was my inference before the edit), then they stimulate what is basically the same memory creation mechanisms that normal infections do. Antibody counterparts recognized by B-Cells are paired with proteins from the disease you want to immunize against, called the Hapten and Carrier respectively. Then the protein is processed via the B-Cells, presented to T-Cells, and a memory response is made.

My apologies if the previous answer was more ambiguous.

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    $\begingroup$ I am sorry, but are you talking about antibiotics or rather vaccines? $\endgroup$
    – nico
    Commented Aug 28, 2012 at 20:31
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, good point. I think my answer had more to do with vaccines. I'll clarify it. $\endgroup$
    – MCM
    Commented Aug 28, 2012 at 21:33
  • $\begingroup$ @MCM That makes a lot more sense, reversed my downvote. I think the OP (and myself) was also interested in whether there is a reduced production of memory cells in an infection treated with antibiotics rather than one that was not (as opposed to a memory of the antibiotic itself). $\endgroup$
    – Rory M
    Commented Aug 28, 2012 at 22:15
  • $\begingroup$ For Antibiotics, I'm not aware of any change in the Adaptive response. Some vaccines don't have quite the same long-lasting memory response as having to fend off the infection naturally (though I've not been explained why), but can still last for years or decades. If someone else is more aware than I am, feel free to answer - I've only taken the basic courses thus far. $\endgroup$
    – MCM
    Commented Aug 28, 2012 at 23:40

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