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What is Bacitracin?

By Dave Slovak
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Bacitracin is a type of antibiotic often used to treat skin and eye infections. It can be toxic to humans when ingested. As a result, it is commonly manufactured as an antibacterial ointment designed for topical or ophthalmic use.

Bacitracin is a mixture of polypeptides that fights bacteria and infection by breaking down the cell walls of the bacteria and preventing the synthesis of additional cells. An antibacterial peptide, it was first developed in the mid-20th century by John Goorley, a pharmaceutical chemist who served in the US Army during World War II and in the US Army reserves for several years thereafter. The name comes from a combination of the scientific name of the bacterium that produces the peptide — Bacillus subtilis — and Margaret Tracy, the name of the young child whose tissue was found to contain the bacterium. Goorley patented bacitracin while working for Venue Laboratories in Bedford, Ohio.

People using this antibiotic to treat skin or eye infections are actually using bacitracin zinc salt. When using this compound, individuals should always wash their hands and the affected area, apply the ointment to an applicator, spread the ointment on the infected area, and then cover it with a bandage. People should always follow the recommended doses, uses and application instructions. Allowing the ointment to enter the mouth or nose can result in painful burning or other irritation. The drug should always be stored at room temperature.

Those using bacitracin can expect to experience an improved condition within several days of the first dose. There are potential side effects with common symptoms, including skin rash and irritation. Individuals with known allergies to penicillin may have an allergic reaction to this drug. When used to treat eye infections, common side effects include blurred vision, eye irritation, and sensitivity to light.

Aside from small cuts, abrasions, and skin and eye infections, there are a few other known uses for bacitracin. It is actually one of the main ingredients in Neosporin®, which is used for the same medical conditions. Bacitracin, however, is a simpler compound, so many people use it when treating new tattoos, piercings, and other forms of body art because there is a smaller chance of an allergic reaction in comparison to Neosporin® or Polysporin®. In some rare cases, the antibiotic has also been used to treat pneumonia in infants.

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