alexa Mechanisms of antimicrobial action of antiseptics and disinfectants: an increasingly important area of investigation


Clinical Microbiology: Open Access

Author(s): A D Russell

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The term ‘biocide’ is increasingly being used to describe compounds with antiseptic, disinfectant or, sometimes, preservative activity. A compound might be used in only one such capacity or possess two or even all of these properties. Until fairly recently, there were two long-held general opinions about biocides. The first was that, as long as they were effective, there was little reason (apart from academic value) to determine how they achieved their inhibitory or lethal effects. The second, widely perceived, view was that antiseptics and disinfectants acted as general protoplasmic poisons and, as such, merited little attention. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there were few drugs available for the treatment of infections. Antiseptics and disinfectants had at that stage been employed for various purposes and in various guises, notable examples being phenol (carbolic acid), mercuric chloride, chlorine, hypochlorites and iodine. Quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs) were described in 1916 but were not used commercially for another 19 years or so. Early studies on the action of such compounds concentrated on the kinetics of bacterial inactivation, although Cooper notably described the relationship between phenolics (phenol and meta-cresol) and bacterial proteins as being of importance in their mechanism of disinfection. In particular, it was considered that the protein structure inside the bacterial cell was affected. Subsequently, Knaysi et al. reported on the ‘manner of death’ of bacteria, mainly Escherichia coli, exposed to mild chemical and physical agents, concluding that the order of death was determined by the distribution of resistances among the cells. Later, Jordan & Jacobs found the distribution of resistance of E. coli treated with phenol to be normal at all phenol concentrations used. Interestingly, specific enzymes were considered by some workers to be involved in bacterial inactivation by biocidal agents.

This article was published in J Antimicrob Chemother and referenced in Clinical Microbiology: Open Access

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