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What Are the Differences between an Antibacterial and Antifungal?

By H. Lo
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The primary difference between antibacterial and antifungal agents is what they target, namely bacteria or fungi. Both bacteria and fungi are microorganisms that can cause harm to humans and other life forms, but they’re often really different when it comes to what they’re made of, how they reproduce and spread, and how resistant they are to environmental changes. As such, getting rid of one or the other usually requires a targeted and specific approach. In general, something labeled “antibacterial” will kill some or all bacterial strains in a certain space, but will usually leave a fungus alone; similarly, an antifungal isn’t likely to have much of an impact on problems that are caused by bacteria. In most cases products or medications carrying either label work in similar ways, it’s just that they are formulated to destroy different things. The surface-level similarities can make it tempting to use them interchangeably, but doing so can have a number of negative consequences and won’t usually do much to solve the problem in any event.

Distinguishing Bacteria and Fungi

Bacteria and fungi and both cellular organisms known as microbes that many researchers believe have been part of life on earth since its very beginning. Most people associate them with disease and infection, and indeed they both have roles to play in those arenas. Antibacterial and antifungal agents are typically used to kill unwanted strains, usually so that a person, animal, or plant can return to health. Not all bacteria and fungal growths are problematic, though, and in fact many are good if not necessary.

Problems arise when a strain of bacteria or formation of fungus grows where it isn’t wanted or needed. Either can enter the body through open wounds, broken skin, or moist cavities like the mouth and nose. The problems they cause do tend to be somewhat different, though. Medications and treatments usually behave differently as a result.

For example, most bacteria are what’s known as prokaryotes, which means that they only have one cell and can usually only reproduce through cell replication and copying. Fungi, on the other hand, are eukaryotes, which means that they’re multi-celled organisms. These can reproduce sexually, as when two organisms join, or asexually, usually by releasing spores into the surrounding environment. Harmful bacteria are responsible for illnesses such as strep throat, tuberculosis and urinary tract infections. Fungus, on the other hand, causes conditions like athlete’s foot, oral thrush, and yeast infections.

Differences in How the Compounds Work

Antibiotics are some of the best known antibacterial medications. These usually work by directly inhibiting a bacterial strain’s ability to reproduce itself, then breaking down the cell walls to disintegrate the organism. Different antibiotics are usually better suited for different sorts of infections. Things like antibacterial soaps and hand washes use harsh astringents to impair and destroy bacterial cells on contact.

Antifungals, on the other hand, are usually designed to inhibit the growth and functioning of certain enzymes that allow fungal spores to disperse. Medications and creams in this category usually need to be pretty carefully formulated since, at least at a basic level, fungal cells and healthy, necessary human cells often look very much alike. While an antibacterial can just eradicate any cell resembling a bacterium, antifungals need to be a lot more discriminating.

How They’re Used

The type and form of an antibacterial or antifungal product that a person uses depends on his or her condition. This is because any one agent isn’t likely to fight all types of bacteria or fungus. Some are presented as oral medications, usually taken in capsule or pill form; others are medicated creams or topical lotions. Hand soaps and disinfectants are also common, particularly among people working in healthcare and related fields.

Risks and Important Concerns

Although the use of antibacterials and antifungals has its place, the misuse of either one can prove to be not only futile but also dangerous. For example, a person who uses the wrong type of antifungal for his or her condition may find that the treatment has no effect on the fungus, and it could grow much worse in the meantime. Or, a person who does not finish a course of antibacterial medication might find that the medicine will not work in treating the same bacterial infection in the future. This is most often because bacteria has the ability to develop a resistance to antibacterial treatment, which can happen if a person stops taking his or her medication before the infection completely clears.

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Discussion Comments

By bluedolphin — On Aug 13, 2013

I heard that anti-fungal medications are very hard on the liver. I don't use them unless it's absolutely necessary. But I do use antibacterials often, I don't they they are as harmful.

By SteamLouis — On Aug 12, 2013

@literally45-- Antimicrobial is the general name given for agents that kill harmful microorganisms. But antimicrobial agents are usually used in a hospital setting, I'm not sure if it's possible to find them over-the-counter at the pharmacy.

You could get both an antibacterial ointment and an anti-fungal ointment and use them together. If you want to know exactly what type of ointment you need, you will have to see a doctor.

Be careful when you use antimicrobial products. If you use them too frequently, the bacteria and fungi develop resistance to them. The less you use them, the more effective they are.

By literally45 — On Aug 11, 2013

Where can I find an antibacterial and anti-fungal ointment in one? Is there a different name for it?

I've been hiking and my hiking boots have caused a sore on my foot. I'm scared it's going to get infected. I know I need an antibacterial ointment but I used to have athlete's foot before. So I want to use both an antibacterial and an anti-fungal to make sure.

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