is an agent that kills microorganisms or inhibits their growth. Antimicrobial medicines can be grouped according to the microorganisms they act primarily against. For example, antibiotics
are used against bacteria
and antifungals are used against fungi
. They can also be classified according to their function. Agents that kill
microbes are called microbicidal, while those that merely inhibit their growth are called biostatic. The use of antimicrobial medicines to treat infection
is known as antimicrobial chemotherapy, while the use of antimicrobial medicines to prevent infection is known as antimicrobial prophylaxis.
The main classes of antimicrobial agents are disinfectants ("nonselective antimicrobials" such as bleach), which kill a wide range of microbes on non-living surfaces to prevent the spread of illness, antiseptics (which are applied to living tissue and help reduce infection during surgery), and antibiotics (which destroy
microorganisms within the body). The term "antibiotic" originally described only those formulations derived from living organisms but is now also applied to synthetic
antimicrobials, such as the sulphonamides, or fluoroquinolones. The term also used to be restricted to antibacterials (and is often used as a synonym
for them by medical professionals and in medical literature), but its context has broadened to include all antimicrobials. Antibacterial agents can be further subdivided into bactericidal agents, which kill bacteria, and bacteriostatic agents, which slow down or stall bacterial growth.
Use of substances with antimicrobial properties is known to have been common practice for at least 2000 years. Ancient Egyptians
and ancient Greeks
used specific molds and plant extracts to treat infection. More recently, microbiologists such as Louis Pasteur and Jules Francois Joubert observed antagonism between some bacteria and discussed the merits
of controlling these interactions in medicine
. In 1928, Alexander Fleming became the first to discover a natural antimicrobial fungus known as Penicillium rubens
. The substance extracted from the fungus he named penicillin and in 1942 it was successfully used to treat a Streptococcus
infection. Penicillin also proved successful in the treatment of many other infectious diseases such as gonorrhea, strep throat
and pneumonia, which were potentially fatal to patients until then.
Many antimicrobial agents exist, for use against a wide range of infectious diseases.