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What Is Involved in Antimicrobial Chemotherapy?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Antimicrobial chemotherapy involves the administration of medications to treat infections caused by certain microorganisms, like bacteria and fungi. The term “chemotherapy,” while specifically associated with cancer, actually refers to the use of chemicals in medical treatment. In the case of antimicrobial chemotherapy, the drugs may halt the growth of organisms or actively kill them. The development of this technology in medicine marked a significant breakthrough, making it possible to treat previously fatal infections with medications.

Bacteria are among the most common of organisms attacked with antimicrobial chemotherapy, but the list can also include other entities like fungi and protists. In all cases, the first step in treatment is figuring out what kind of infection the patient has. Sometimes this requires growing the organisms in culture to find out which ones are present. Other cases may be possible to diagnose by reviewing the symptoms and location; even if the care provider doesn’t narrow down the precise organism, it can be close enough to choose the right treatment.

Understanding the culprit is important for selecting the correct course of antimicrobial chemotherapy. These medications can have a broad or narrow mechanism of action, and work in a number of different ways. Some organisms are not susceptible to certain medications, and thus won’t respond to treatment if a doctor chooses the wrong drug. For quick treatment, care providers may select a broad spectrum drug to see if it works, and order a culture if the patient doesn’t appear to get better.

Patients must follow specific dosing directions, which typically include several days and sometimes weeks of antimicrobial chemotherapy to address the infection. During this period, they may experience side effects, and in some cases have severe reactions that necessitate switching to a different medication. At the end of the course, care providers can test again to confirm that the infection has cleared, if they think this is necessary. Sometimes multiple medications are required to combat the infection, or the patient needs to switch because the microbes are resistant and the first line of treatment doesn’t work.

Research in antimicrobial chemotherapy is an ongoing topic. Doctors always need new medications to treat patients, especially drugs that come with fewer side effects and risks. Furthermore, microbes are always evolving in response to medications. This requires pharmaceutical companies to scramble to keep up with new releases of medications to tackle resistant infections. Part of treatment for infections can include a report to health authorities if a patient appears to be infected with an unknown organism, or has an extremely resistant infection.

WiseGEEK 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.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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