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What are Topical Antibiotics?

By Dorothy Distefano
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Antibiotics are medications used to treat bacterial infections. Topical versions are applied directly to the skin to treat or prevent infection. Treating a wound with these drugs usually promotes accelerated healing and minimizes the risk of infection.

Topical antibiotics are used primarily to prevent infection of superficial wounds on the skin. Often, a cut, abrasion, or burn will be cleansed, a topical preparation applied, and a dressing affixed to the affected area. This is considered prophylactic, or preventative, treatment. At times, antibiotic creams or ointments may be used on surgical incision sites to prevent infection. Untreated wounds may become overrun with bacteria, causing swelling, redness, and pain.

Available in creams, ointments, powders, or sprays, topical antibiotics are provided in a variety of strengths. Over-the-counter products include bacitracin, neomycin, mupirocin, and polymixin B. Some contain multiple antibiotics to fight a broad spectrum of bacteria. A prescription is usually required for stronger medications used to treat more severe infections.

Topical antibiotics can be used sparingly. The skin is only affected by the treatment that touches it, so thick layers are unnecessary. Patients should check drug labels for specific instructions on proper use. Many are limited to three times or less per day.

Other than surgical sites and accidental skin lacerations, antibiotic creams are sometimes used to treat skin infections, such as impetigo. Only skin conditions caused by bacteria are improved by the use of an antibiotic formula. Viral or allergic skin reactions are unaffected by these drugs.

Some acne is resistant to non-prescription treatment and a topical antibiotic may be prescribed. The most frequently used prescriptions for acne are clindamycin and erythromycin. While their mechanism of action is slightly different, both medications kill the bacteria that cause acne.

Topical antibiotics, like any medication, may cause side effects. Itching and burning are minor side effects, and usually subside on their own. Adverse reactions that may require the attention of a medical professional include rash, facial or lip swelling, sweating, chest tightness, difficulty breathing, fainting, dizziness, low blood pressure, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea, and tinnitus or hearing loss.

Before using any medication in tandem with a topical antibiotic, a patient should consult with his doctor or pharmacist to make sure that there is no potential for interaction. Clindamycin, for example, may enhance the effects of neuromuscular blocking agents. The use of topical corticosteroids is not recommended for use with these types of antibiotics because they may mask the signs of an allergic reaction or further infection.

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Discussion Comments

By oscar23 — On Jul 02, 2011

One thing that I love about our topical antibiotic cream is the fact that one tube could possibly last for a decade or better. Okay, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but I bet you know what I’m talking about.

A little bit of that stuff sure does go a long way, and I really do think that it helps with the healing process.

I particularly like to use it on all of my kids little mishaps; I can’t take them to the doctor for every one, but applying this cream makes me feel like I’m doing something to help. And, the fact is that I actually am.

By poppyseed — On Jul 02, 2011

Whenever one of my children gets hurt I dig out mommy’s magic cream. Now it really doesn’t matter if we’ve got a scrape or not, we still get out the triple antibiotic ointment. It’s sort of a generic for Neosporin. I find it just as effective at a much lower price.

Anyway, this magic ointment certainly does make everything feel all better. Because I’m buying it at a steal of a deal, I don’t mind wasting a little on the bumps that it really can’t help. But for the ones that it does help it is irreplaceable.

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