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What Is the Difference between Antiseptics and Antibiotics?

By A. Gamm
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Antiseptics and antibiotics are often believed to be the same due to their common properties, but there are a few key differences that distinguish the two. Typically, antiseptics weaken and slow the growth of bacteria and other microorganisms, which in turn helps to prevent the bacteria from causing further infection. Antibiotics, however, actually kill bacteria as well as some types of fungi and parasites. Unlike most antiseptics, bacteria may become resistant to antibiotics after prolonged use. Some antiseptics may hinder the healing process and worsen a wound's condition.

One of the primary differences between antiseptics and antibiotics is how they work against bacteria and other microorganisms. Antiseptics only slow the growth of bacteria instead of actually killing it off. Unlike antibiotics, however, antiseptics are also effective on other microorganisms, making it potentially beneficial in fighting other infections. Antibiotics do kill the bacteria, but are believed to be ineffective toward many other types of infection. It is believed that antibiotics may fight off certain parasites and fungi in the body, but they normally require a prescription since they are considered to be stronger.

An important difference between antiseptics and antibiotics is that bacteria are likely to develop immunity to certain antibiotics after an extended use or if antibiotic therapy was not completed. It is not confirmed that bacteria have the same reaction with extended antiseptic use. To prevent immunity to the antibiotics, a healthcare professional may recommend fully completing the antibiotic therapy to ensure all bacteria have been killed off or using different antibiotics for certain illnesses.

Certain types of antiseptics may also inhibit healing and irritate the skin and often require specific methods of use. For example, hydrogen peroxide may require that the area dries completely before a bandage is used, while phenol may cause further damage to the skin if a bandage is used. There are no known similar side effects of antibiotics. As such, if there is an option to choose between antiseptics and antibiotics to treat skin wounds, using an antibiotic cream is generally recommended.

Due to the limited function of antiseptics, they are usually used topically to prevent more bacteria and other microorganisms from entering open wounds, but some oral antiseptics do exist. There are a few rare cases in which antiseptics and antibiotics may be options for treating the same infection, such as certain urinary infections. In this case, the severity and type of urinary infection may determine the exact treatment. Antibiotics are primarily taken orally, usually in the form of penicillin, to kill off infection inside the body. There are few antibiotics that may be taken topically, and as with oral antibiotics they usually require a prescription.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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