Did you know that human skin is home to as many as 1,000 bacterial species? Some are beneficial, protecting the skin from water loss and damage. Others help keep the “bad bacteria” from multiplying and causing swelling and diseases.
Still, many harmful bacteria can cause infections by entering the skin. They sometimes do so through the hair follicles. However, it’s more common for them to penetrate the skin through wounds.
The good news is that antibiotic ointments help prevent wounds from becoming infected. They also play a vital role in treating existing infections and even skin diseases.
To that end, we created this guide on common antibiotic ointments. Read on to learn what they are, what they’re for, and when to use them.
Bacitracin is one of the earliest topical antibiotics used in the U.S.; the U.S. FDA first approved it in 1948. This allowed for its use as a short-term treatment for localized skin infections. The agency also approved it as a preventive method for minor skin infections.
You can get bacitracin in both generic and brand-name (Baciguent) versions. Both are available as non-prescription (over-the-counter) medications.
You can use bacitracin ointments for minor or superficial burns, cuts, and scrapes. That’s also why you can find them alongside antiseptic creams for first aid and fresh wound care.
Don’t use bacitracin for more severe injuries like puncture wounds or animal bites. Nor should you apply it to deeper cuts or burns that aren’t superficial. Instead, call your doctor or seek emergency help for these injuries.
To use bacitracin, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water first. Then, apply a fingertip-sized amount of the ointment to your injury. Wash your hands well again after.
You should only apply bacitracin one to three times daily. And unless your doctor tells you otherwise, don’t use it for longer than seven days.
Triple Antibiotic Ointments
Triple antibiotic ointments contain three active ingredients: bacitracin, polymixin B, and neomycin. It can treat the same minor injuries as a bacitracin-only topical. It’s also available over-the-counter and in both generic and brand-name (Neosporin) versions.
A critical difference between triple antibiotic ointments and bacitracin is their allergy risk. More people may be allergic to the former, particularly its neomycin content. Neomycin may trigger allergic contact dermatitis.
Allergic contact dermatitis, in turn, affects about 20% of people.
Still, triple antibiotic ointments have their pros; they can kill more bacterial species. They can also stop the growth of and kill existing bacteria that may infect wounds.
You can use triple antibiotic ointments if you don’t have allergic contact dermatitis. If you’re unsure, talk to your doctor or a dermatologist first. They can help determine if you have allergies through tests like skin patches.
The steps for using triple antibiotic ointments are the same as for bacitracin. Likewise, only use it for seven days unless your doctor tells you otherwise.
Mupirocin ointments are topical antibacterial options for treating impetigo.
Impetigo is a skin infection caused by group A Streptococcus and Staphylococcus aureus. The former is highly contagious and can spread via skin contact and bodily fluids.
The first sign of impetigo is a red, itchy sore. The sore can then multiply and, from there, they can break open and leak fluids or pus. A crusty, yellow scab then forms over the sores as they heal.
Impetigo is usually mild, but it can occur anywhere on the body. The most common sites are on the arms, legs, and around the nose and mouth.
If you experience such symptoms, visit your doctor as soon as possible. Your doctor may have to prescribe mupirocin ointment. Please note that you can only buy this medication with a valid prescription.
Aside from impetigo, mupirocin ointment can help treat skin furunculosis and boils. It’s also helpful for inflamed hair follicles and minor bacterial skin infections.
Your doctor will tell you how often to apply mupirocin, although it’s usually 2 to 3 times a day. You may also have to use it longer, sometimes up to 10 days. As always, practice proper hand washing before and after its use.
Gentamicin Sulfate Ointments
Gentamicin sulfate ointments can treat primary and secondary bacterial skin infections.
Primary skin infections occur directly as a result of a bacterial disease. These often result from infections caused by staphylococci or streptococci bacteria.
Examples of staphylococci infections are furuncles, carbuncles, impetigo, and superficial folliculitis. Streptococci can also cause impetigo, ecthyma, erysipelas, or cellulitis.
Secondary bacterial skin infections result from infected wounds. That’s why you must take extra steps to care for and treat skin injuries before they get infected.
Gentamicin sulfate ointments are also topical antibiotic options for those allergic to neomycin. They are also effective in treating wet and oozing primary infections. Likewise, they can help treat greasy, secondary infections, including acne.
Like mupirocin, gentamicin sulfate ointments are also prescription drugs. So, your doctor or dermatologist must first issue a prescription for them.
Your prescription will also tell you how often you must apply the ointment. The usual dose is three to four times a day.
As for the duration, it can be anywhere from seven to ten days. However, you may have to use it longer for more complicated infections.
Therefore, your doctor may ask you to go for another check-up after a week. This can help them determine if you need to extend your treatment.
Always Use Antibiotic Ointments as Directed
As you learned in this guide, there are four common antibiotic ointments. These are bacitracin, triple antibiotic, mupirocin, and gentamicin sulfate ointments. You also learned that the first two are OTC, while the other two are prescription only.
Whichever of the four you choose or need, please use it as directed or prescribed. Otherwise, it may not work as it should. It may also contribute to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance.
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