You may be surprised to know that you’ve used bacitracin to treat wounds without ever seeing its name. Bacitracin is a medication used on small cuts or burns to prevent infections, and it’s commonly found in Neosporin. Although less common, you can also find this antibiotic in its pure form. Let’s discuss how bacitracin works, where it comes from, and its uses.
What is Bacitracin?
Bacitracin is a polypeptide antibiotic created from a combination of related cyclic peptides that are produced by the Bacillus licheniformis. Interestingly, this antibiotic was first discovered in 1945, when researchers collected debris from a leg wound on a seven-year-old girl named Margaret Tracey. The debris grew isolates of related cyclic peptides, all stemming from the Bacillus subtilis group. This is where the name comes from – Bacillus and “Tracey.”
This antibiotic is topically used by applying a layer to the affected area. It is also sometimes used as an intramuscular injection to treat infantile streptococcal pneumonia and empyema. However, bacitracin is nephrotoxic, meaning that it can damage the kidneys when taken internally. With this in mind, it’s best used topically. Although it is safe for most people, it may sometimes cause allergic, anaphylactic, or hypersensitive reactions in patients who are allergic to neomycin.
The mixture of cyclic polypeptide antibiotics in bacitracin can both kill bacteria and prevent the growth of bacteria, depending on how susceptible the bacteria are to bacitracin as well as the concentration of the drug. Bacitracin works by being absorbed into the skin, where it prevents mucopeptides from transferring into the cell walls of various different microorganisms. This blocks the bacteria from synthesizing new cell walls and replicating themselves.
Bacitracin also kills bacterial cells. It does this by stopping proteases, as well as other enzymes, which are involved in altering the cell membrane function of the bacteria. The antibiotic prevents the synthesis of the cell wall by inhibiting the dephosphorylation (phosphate removal) of the P-P-phospholipid carrier that attaches the cell wall to the cell membrane, thus leading to the destruction of the entire cell.
Bacitracin is most often used to kill gram-positive skin organisms, like staph infections. It is also effective on some gram-negative organisms, like Neisseria spp., but most organisms in this category are resistant to this antibiotic.
You can find Bacitracin in triple antibiotic ointments, like Neosporin. Neosporin and other similar triple antibiotics contain bacitracin, neomycin, and polymyxin B.
Bacitracin keeps the wound moist and kills some of the bacteria that could grow in the wound. It’s best for wounds that are clean, superficial, and have the tendency to dry out. This includes cuts, scrapes, and minor burns.
Before using this medicine, be sure to let your doctor know if you have any of the following conditions which can affect whether Bacitracin is right for you.
- Puncture wounds
- Severe burns
- Animal bites
- Large areas of injured skin
Bacitracin may not be best for those who are pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or breastfeeding. It won’t work for wounds with tunneling and undermining. Your doctor will provide you with further recommendations and medications, potentially including a wound vacuum, gauze packing, and 0.25% acetic acid.
It’s also worth noting that bacitracin may be used as an alternative to Neosporin. Neosporin is more effective because it kills more bacteria than bacitracin alone – however, Neosporin also tends to create an allergic reaction over time. This is why wounds treated with Neosporin often look red and infected, even though they aren’t. As always, be sure to talk with your doctor and follow their recommendation.
Bacitracin should be used for external use only. It will have directions on the prescription label that you can follow. It’s generally best to wash and clean the wound twice per day, making sure that you have clean hands before touching the area. Once done, pat the area dry and then apply a thin layer of bacitracin. Afterward, you may cover the area with a sterile gauze bandage.
You should apply the bacitracin two to three times per day, depending on what your doctor says. However, it is generally used similarly to lip balm – when the area looks dry, you can reapply it. Unless your doctor recommends otherwise, you should use bacitracin for no more than one week.
This polypeptide antibiotic has been approved for use for over 70 years. Although it may cause side effects in rare cases, it’s typically safe to treat all minor wounds. Be sure to work with your primary care physician before using this medication or schedule a consultation with one of our health consultants.
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