An Introductory Guide To Antibiotics

By:    Published: June 15, 2012

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Nearly everyone has taken antibiotics at some point in their lives, but few people actually know how they work. Antibiotics have certainly saved many lives over the many years that have passed since the first antibiotic, penicillin, was discovered.

Though discovered in 1928, penicillin wasn't put into widespread use until the 1940's when the growing number of casualties and illnesses from World War II caused production to increase drastically, thus lowering the cost and making it attainable to almost everyone who needed it. Today, there are hundreds of antibiotics, each treating a different type of infection, but all with the same purpose of saving lives.

What Are Antibiotics?

Antibiotics are medications that are used to treat infections caused by certain pathogens. According to the National Institutes of Health, the word antibiotic is derived from the Greek term, biotokos, and can be translated to mean “against life.” This can be reflected in the sense that the pathogens that are killed by antibiotics are actual life forms.

Antibiotics are only effective at treating infections caused by bacteria. They fall into a category of drugs known as “antimicrobials.” Other drugs in this category include anti-fungal drugs and anti-viral drugs. Antibiotics will not treat a viral infection, and they may make some fungal infections worse by killing off any of the bacteria that are trying to fight off the fungus, as is the case with vaginal yeast infections in women.

In industrialized countries, most oral antibiotics are only available with a doctor's prescription, but there are some topical antibiotics that are available over-the-counter.

There is no “one size fits all” antibiotic, though some are effective at treating many different types of infections. Antibiotics are separated into the following categories and each category works to treat a different type of infection:

  • Aminoglycosides
  • Ansamycins
  • Carbacepham
  • Carbapenems
  • Cephalosporins (first generation)
  • Cephalosporins (second generation)
  • Cephalosporins (third generation)
  • Cephalosporins (fourth generation)
  • Cephalosporins (fifth generation)
  • Glycopeptides
  • Lincosamides
  • Lipopeptides
  • Macrolides
  • Monobactams
  • Nitrofurans
  • Penicillins
  • Penicillin Combinations
  • Polypeptides
  • Quinolones
  • Sulfonamides
  • Tetracyclines
  • Anti-mycobateria

There is also a category of antibiotics made up of all the other medications that don't fit into the other categories, and each medication is usually effective at treating one specific condition, unlike medications in the other categories that can be used to treat multiple infections that are similar to one another.

How Do Antibiotics Work?

Antibiotics work in one of two ways. They are either bactericidal, meaning they kill the bacteria, or they are bacteriostatic, which means they stop the cells of the bacterium from multiplying.

Penicillins are an example of a bactericidal. Most bacterial cell walls are partially made of a substance called peptidoglycan. Human cells do not contain peptidoglycan. What makes the antibiotic effective is that it works to stop the cell wall from forming properly by targeting the peptidoglycan in the cell. This causes the cell to burst because the wall is weak and leaves the human host cells undamaged.

Tetracyclines are an example of antibiotic that is bacteriostatic. It works to stop the bacterium from growing and reproducing by affecting the DNA of the cell. Human cells do have similar DNA to bacteria cells, but the bacteriostatic does not affect the DNA of human cells because it can't accumulate in the cell in significant quantities.

Natural Alternatives

Recently, there has been a push to return to more natural forms of health care for a variety of reasons. And there are natural alternatives to antibiotics that are believed to be as effective by some people. Here is a list of some of these natural alternatives:

  • Garlic: Garlic has been used since antiquity as a natural antibiotic. It was given to troops in World War I and World War II to prevent infections in wounds. Onions and shallots also have similar properties. It can be added to food or taken as a supplement in pill or liquid form.
  • Grapefruit seed extract: Grapefruit seed extract is made from the seeds and pith of citrus fruits. It has been shown to be effective both as a surface disinfectant as well as a powerful topical and internal antibiotic. It is available in both liquid and pill form.
  • Oregano: Research out of the United Kingdom has shown oregano to be highly effective at killing MRSA, the infection that is resistant to most of the commonly used antibiotics. Researchers are hoping that this information will allow cleaning products and personal hygiene products to be developed that could prevent the spread of this hard to treat infection.

Other natural alternatives include:

  • Basil
  • Thyme
  • Echinacea
  • Ginseng
  • Tea Tree

Note that further study and evaluation is necessary to determine whether these natural alternatives are suitable substitutes for prescribed antibiotics. When determining the best course of treatment for infection, always consult your doctor or healthcare provider.

Safety Precautions

Like other medications there are some safety precautions to keep in mind when using antibiotics.

  • Always complete the full course of prescribed antibiotics; otherwise the bacteria could become resistant to future courses of treatment.
  • Antibiotics will interfere with the effectiveness of certain medication, most notably contraceptive medications. Be sure that the doctor is aware if the patient is taking these medications and use alternate methods of birth control while on antibiotics.
  • Some medications should be taken on an empty stomach, while some can be taken with food or milk if they cause stomach upset. Follow dosing instructions carefully.

Antibiotics are extremely effective at treating a wide variety of infections and have been credited with saving millions of lives. When used correctly they are an invaluable asset to the community at large.

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