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Antibiotic vs antimicrobial….what’s in a name?


I’ve spent a lot of time in meetings listening to people debating whether to use ‘antibiotic’ vs ‘antimicrobial’. I tend to stay out of those because I don’t care too much.

  • Yes, they mean something different things.
  • Yes, we want to be precise when writing guidance documents where the different might be relevant.

However, 99% of the time, it doesn’t matter.

Definitions are pretty variable but here’s a common approach;

Antimicrobials are substances that inhibit or kill microbes, including bacteria, viruses, fungi and protozoa (microscopic parasites).

Antibiotics are substances that inhibit or kill bacteria.

So, antibiotics are a subset of antimicrobials. Most of the time, when we’re talking about use, resistance or stewardship, we’re focused on bacteria, and therefore antibiotics. However, it’s not all about bacteria, and substances that inhibit bacteria also inhibit other types of microbes.

  • I tend to use antimicrobial when I’m writing scientifically.
  • I tend to use antibiotic and antimicrobial rather interchangeably otherwise.

Why not just use the ‘proper’ term?

  • Part of it is habit
  • Part of it is a lack of motivation
  • Part of it is using a term people understand.

If you asked 100 people “What kind of drug do you usually get if you have a urinary tract infection”, I’d guess almost all would say ‘antibiotic’

If you asked 100 vets or physicians what they prescribe for a urinary tract infection, I’d bet >90 would say ‘antibiotic’. Maybe 100.

That doesn’t mean we should avoid using proper terms when it’s important. If we’re working on international guidelines, we need to be absolutely clear what we’re talking about.

Beyond that….

TomAYto, tomAHto.

PotAYto, PotAHto.

I don’t really care what we call them most of the time, I just want us to use them better.


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