In a simplified manner, an antibiotic is an organic natural or synthetic chemical substance inhibiting or killing pathogenic bacteria at low concentrations and with selective toxicity. More generally, for microbiologists and chemists, an antibiotic is an anti-bacterial substance.
There exist variants of that definition differ by the presence or absence of the concepts of selective toxicity of microbial origin and the targeting limited only by bacteria.
Antiseptics are not antibiotics. Their function is to kill maximum number of germs (bacteria, fungi, viruses). Their mode of action is not specific, they are used only locally applied externally and misused (too concentrated for example) can cause damage and / or retard wound healing.
Antibiotics are not effective against viruses. A product fighting against viruses is an antiviral.
Many antibiotics are natural molecules produced by microorganisms: fungi or other bacteria. The latter produce them to eliminate competing bacteria with which they compete in their habitat.
Antibiotics work specifically on bacteria by blocking a key step in their development: synthesis of their wall, DNA, proteins, energy production, etc. This blockage occurs when the antibiotic binds to its target, a molecule of the bacterium that participates in one of these essential metabolic processes. This interaction between the antibiotic and its target is highly selective and specific.
Bacterium and its compounds are generally not active against fungi or viruses. There are also other active molecules affecting these other types of infectious agents, such as antifungal or antiviral drugs that are distinct from antibiotics.
The widespread introduction of antibiotics after World War II was one of the most important therapeutic advances of the XX century. Antibiotic treatments have advanced life expectancy for more than ten years, more than any other medical treatment. However, the widespread or improper use of certain antibiotics, including preventive, curative or dietary supplement in animal feed and in fish farms, veterinary and human medicine, or as pesticides for the plant treatment (against fire blight, for example) has introduced a selection pressure that led to the development of populations of antibiotic-resistant microorganisms and to general decrease in therapeutic efficacy. In hospitals, this leads to an increase in nosocomial risk without treatment suited against certain particularly resistant germs.
Only a small number of natural antibiotics are used in human therapy, for reasons of availability in the body or adverse effects. A large number of molecules on the market today are synthetic molecules or not natural antibiotics, particularly to evade the issues of resistance.
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