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What is Sulfanilamide?

By M. Walker
Updated May 17, 2024
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Sulfanilamide is a medicinal compound used to guard against certain bacterial infections. It is frequently used in the form of a topical cream or powder to treat surface infections, as well as a pill for internal infections. It falls into the category of sulfonamide antibacterial drugs, and its chemical formula is C6H8N2O2S.

Common infections treated by sulfanilamide include urinary tract infections, vaginal infections, strep throat, and some staph infections. Depending on the type of infection, either a cream or a pill will be prescribed. The most common side effects from creams are itching, burning, rash formation, and swelling. With pills, the most common side effects are upset stomach, nausea, dizziness, and decreased appetite. Severe side effects or allergic reactions are rare, but about three percent of the population will experience a negative reaction to sulfanilamide and other sulfonamide drugs.

Sulfanilamide works as an antibiotic by hindering bacterial growth within the body. Like other sulfonamide compounds, its mechanism involves blocking a specific chemical pathway in bacteria. It acts as a competitive inhibitor for the compound para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), which means that it mimics the structure of PABA. Bacterial enzymes will bind to sulfanilamide instead of PABA, which stops their activity and slowly kills the cell.

Bacterial cells need PABA in order to synthesize folate and folic acid, which are molecules necessary for creating amino acids and nucleotides. Humans, however, are not able to make folic acid, and must obtain it through diet. Because this compound affects the synthetic pathway, it is harmful to bacterial cells but not to human cells.

Sulfonamide compounds were some of the first antimicrobial medicines ever developed. As a result of their success in the early 1930s, mass production of the drug began, and various drug companies churned out new sulfonamide drugs. Few testing procedures were followed during this time, and one drug containing the poisonous compound diethylene glycol was released into the market. This was known as the Elixir Sulfanilamide Disaster, occurred in 1937, and caused over 100 deaths. The event prompted the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 to ensure consumer safety.

After safe production was resumed, this and other sulfonamide compounds became popular antibiotics during World War II, and prevented many wounds from developing infections. Even today, many sulfanilamide drugs are commonly prescribed for infections. Some sulfanilamide brands available include sulfadiazine and sulfamethoxazole, which are both antibiotics, and furosemide, which is a diuretic.

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Discussion Comments
By EdRick — On Nov 09, 2011

@dfoster85 - I know it would be kind of a pain, but have you considered getting one of those medical alert bracelets that people wear all the time? If you were in an accident, you might be given antibiotics to prevent infection (or, God forbid, you could have some sort of collapse) and you might not be able to tell them about your allergy.

By dfoster85 — On Nov 08, 2011

Sulfa antibiotics are still popular and effective for a lot of conditions; they're cheap and they work, so they tend to be go-to drugs for a lot of doctors.

But it's important to be aware that many people are allergic to these drugs. Whenever I have to go to the hospital, they put a large (and frankly annoying) extra plastic bracelet on my wrist to show that I'm allergic to make sure they don't tive me any sulfa without thinking about it.

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