Intensive Care Medicine

, Volume 38, Issue 11, pp 1738-1750

First online:

Selective decontamination of the digestive tract: the mechanism of action is control of gut overgrowth

  • Luciano SilvestriAffiliated withDepartment of Emergency, Unit of Anesthesia and Intensive Care, Presidio Ospedaliero di Gorizia
  • , Miguel A. de la CalAffiliated withDepartment of Intensive Care Medicine, CIBER Enfermedades Respiratorias, Hospital Universitario de Getafe
  • , Hendrick K. F. van SaeneAffiliated withInstitute of Ageing and Chronic Diseases, University of Liverpool Email author 

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Gut overgrowth is the pathophysiological event in the critically ill requiring intensive care. In relation to the risk of developing a clinically important outcome, gut overgrowth is defined as ≥105 potential pathogens including ‘abnormal’ aerobic Gram-negative bacilli (AGNB), ‘normal’ bacteria and yeasts, per mL of digestive tract secretion. Surveillance samples of throat and gut are the only samples to detect overgrowth. Gut overgrowth is the crucial event which precedes both primary and secondary endogenous infection, and a risk factor for the development of de novo resistance. Selective decontamination of the digestive tract (SDD) is an antimicrobial prophylaxis designed to control overgrowth.


There have been 65 randomised controlled trials of SDD in 15,000 patients over 25 years and 11 meta-analyses, which are reviewed.

Results and conclusions

These trials demonstrate that the full SDD regimen using parenteral and enteral antimicrobials reduces lower airway infection by 72 %, blood stream infection by 37 %, and mortality by 29 %. Resistance is also controlled. Parenteral cefotaxime which reaches high salivary and biliary concentrations eradicates overgrowth of ‘normal’ bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus in the throat. Enteral polyenes control ‘normal’ Candida species. Enteral polymyxin and tobramycin, eradicate, or prevent gut overgrowth of ‘abnormal’ AGNB. Enteral vancomycin controls overgrowth of ‘abnormal’ methicillin-resistant S. aureus. SDD controls overgrowth by achieving high antimicrobial concentrations effective against ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ potential pathogens rather than by selectivity.


SDD Mechanism of action Gut overgrowth Selectivity RCTs Meta-analyses