antiseptic, agent that kills or inhibits the growth of microorganisms on the external surfaces of the body. Antiseptics should generally be distinguished from drugs such as antibiotics that destroy microorganisms internally, and from disinfectants, which destroy microorganisms found on nonliving objects. Germicides include only those antiseptics that kill microorganisms. Some common antiseptics are alcohol, iodine, hydrogen peroxide, and boric acid. There is great variation in the ability of antiseptics to destroy microorganisms and in their effect on living tissue. For example, mercuric chloride is a powerful antiseptic, but it irritates delicate tissue. In contrast, silver nitrate kills fewer germs but can be used on the delicate tissues of the eyes and throat. There is also a great difference in the time required for different antiseptics to work. Iodine, one of the fastest-working antiseptics, kills bacteria within 30 sec. Other antiseptics have slower, more residual action. Since so much variability exists, systems have been devised for measuring the action of an antiseptic against certain standards. The bacteriostatic action of an antiseptic compared to that of phenol (under the same conditions and against the same microorganism) is known as its phenol coefficient. Joseph Lister was the first to employ the antiseptic phenol, or carbolic acid, in surgery, following the discovery by Louis Pasteur that microorganisms are the cause of infections. Modern surgical techniques for avoiding infection are founded on asepsis, the absence of pathogenic organisms. Sterilization is the chief means of achieving asepsis.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.