Antiseptics are medicines that slow or stop the growth of germs and help prevent infections in minor cuts, scrapes, and burns.

Antiseptics are applied to the skin to keep bacteria from getting into woundsand causing infection. Although antiseptics do not usually kill bacteria, they do weaken them and slow their growth.

Simply applying an antiseptic to a wound is not adequate treatment. The woundshould be cleaned first, and in most cases it should be covered with a bandage or other type of dressing to keep it clean and moist while it heals. However, some antiseptics, such as phenol, can damage the skin if the wound is covered after they are applied. Others, such as hydrogen peroxide and iodine, should be allowed to dry completely before the wound is covered.

Because antiseptics can irritate the skin and even interfere with the healingprocess, they should be used sparingly. Some medical experts advise people to use antibiotic ointments instead of antiseptics because they can actually kill the bacteria that may cause a wound to become infected. Rule of thumb: ifhydrogen peroxide or another antiseptic is the only thing available to use at the time of injury, use it. If an antibiotic ointment or cream is available, use one of them instead.

Some commonly used antiseptics are isopropyl alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, iodine, phenol, methyl salicylate, and thymol. Most of the antiseptic products onthe market contain one or more of these ingredients. These products can be bought without a doctor's prescription.

The correct amount to use depends on the product. Check the directions on thepackage or container or ask a pharmacist how to use the antiseptic.

Antiseptics are meant to be used for no more than one week. If the wound hasnot healed in that time, stop using the antiseptic and call a doctor.

Only minor cuts, scrapes, and burns should be treated with antiseptics. Certain kinds of injuries may need medical care and should not be self-treated with antiseptics. These include:

  • Large wounds
  • Deep cuts
  • Cuts that continue bleeding
  • Cuts that may need stitches
  • Burns any larger than a small red spot
  • Scrapes imbedded with particlesthat won't wash away
  • Animal bites
  • Punctures
  • Eye injuries.

Antiseptics also should not be used to treat sunburn or existing infections

Anyone who has allergies of any kind should check with a doctor or pharmacistbefore using an over-the-counter antiseptic product.

Because some antiseptics can irritate the skin, check with a doctor before using these products on children under 2 years of age. Older people and peoplewith sensitive skin should also check with a doctor or pharmacist before using an antiseptic.

When hydrogen peroxide is applied to a wound, it fizzes as oxygen is released. This fizzing action helps loosen and remove dead tissue and is not harmful.After the fizzing stops, the edges of the wound may be white--another harmless effect. When treating children or others who might be frightened by theseeffects, explain what is going to happen and assure them that the fizzing will not be painful.

Iodine may stain the skin. The stain can be removed with a compound called sodium thiosulfate. Ask the pharmacist for help in obtaining this compound.

Hydrogen peroxide solutions that contain more than 20% hydrogen peroxide candamage the skin and mucus membranes and can even lead to infection, rather than preventing it. Solutions this strong should be used only occasionally andin small amounts, if at all. Care should also be taken if hydrogen peroxide is used in the mouth, as a mouthwash or a gargle. Spit out the hydrogen peroxide after gargling. Do not swallow it.

Iodine can cause a lasting stinging sensation called iodine burn. Burning isespecially likely if the wound is covered with a bandage before the iodine has had time to dry. It is also more likely with iodine solutions that contain7% iodine or more. Iodine solutions this strong should not be used as antiseptics.

Some people develop an allergy to iodine when they use it repeatedly. Anyonewho has a rash, a lasting burning sensation, or an unusually warm feeling inthe area where the iodine was applied should contact a physician or pharmacist.

Antiseptics are not known to interact with any other medicines. However, theyshould not be used together with any other topical cream, solution, or ointment.

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