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How do antibiotics work?

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
Each type of antibiotic targets a specific aspect of a bacteria's life by interfering with either the structure of the cell wall, membranes, genetic material (DNA), enzymes, or proteins; virtually anything that it needs to divide and grow.
This content originally appeared on doctoroz.com

Antibiotics kill single-cell organisms called bacteria. If bacteria make it past our immune systems and reproduce inside our bodies, they cause disease. We need to kill the bacteria to eliminate the disease.

Some bacteria produce chemicals that can damage or disable parts of our bodies. An ear infection, for example, happens when bacteria have gotten into the inner ear. The body starts working to fight the bacteria but, as part of the body's natural process, the immune system produces inflammation. That inflammation in your ear is painful. You take an antibiotic to kill the bacteria, thus eliminating the inflammation.

An antibiotic is a selective poison. The specific poison has been chosen to kill the desired bacteria, but not cells in your body. Each type of antibiotic affects different bacteria in different ways. One antibiotic might inhibit a bacterium's ability to make glucose into energy. Another might inhibit its ability to produce a cell wall. In either case the bacterium dies and cannot reproduce.

Antibiotics do not work on viruses. Viruses are not alive. A bacterium is a living and reproducing life form. A virus is just a fragment of DNA (or RNA). A virus, on the other hand, injects its DNA into a living cell and uses that cell to reproduce more of the viral DNA. Antibiotics don't work on a virus because there is nothing to "kill."

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.