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Medicines/How They Work


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Kelly E. Miller
Fun Quotes             
You're sitting in the doctor's office, feeling cruddy and hardly able to swallow. You watch and listen as the doctor grabs her prescription pad and says to your mom or dad, "The test came back, and he's got strep throat. I've seen a lot of kids with it this week. Give him this medicine, make sure he finishes all of it, and he should be well enough to go back to school soon." So you go home and take your medicine. Sure enough, you quickly get better.

But what was in the medicine? How did it work to make you better? And how did the doctor know to give you that medicine instead of thousands of others? Medicines aren't really a mystery - keep reading and you'll learn more.

Calling All Chemicals
One medicine might be a hot-pink liquid, another medicine might come in a special mist, another might be in a pill, and still another might come out of a tube, but they are all chemicals. Some chemicals that are used to make medicines come from things in nature, like plants or animals. Most medicines today are created by scientists in laboratories, and the medicines are usually based on chemicals found in nature. After a medicine is created, it is tested over and over in many different ways. This allows scientists to make sure that the medicine is safe for people to take, and that the medicine successfully fights or prevents a specific illness. In fact, a lot of new medicines are improvements on old medicines, to help people feel better more quickly.

Adding chemicals to your body might sound strange - but not if you know that the human body is made up completely of chemicals! Some of the chemicals in the body are simple and others are a lot more complicated, but they all work together to make our bodies function. Everything we do depends on these chemicals carrying out their jobs correctly.

Sometimes a part of the body can't make enough of a certain chemical, and it can make a person sick. Someone who has insulin-dependent diabetes, for example, has an organ (called the pancreas) that can't make enough of a certain chemical in order to keep her healthy. Other times a person's body might make too much of a certain chemical, and that can make someone sick, too.

Most of the time, when kids are sick, an illness comes from germs that get into the body. This can change the chemicals in the body and make a person feel ill. In many cases, the right kind of medicine can kill the germs and allow a person to become healthy again.

Many Kinds of Medicines
People take medicines for a lot of different reasons, including: to fight an illness, to help ease the symptoms of an illness, and to keep from getting sick in the first place. When a doctor is deciding what type of medicine to give a patient, she will think about these reasons and what problem is affecting the patient. Sometimes a person may need to take more than one type of medicine at the same time - one to fight illness and one to help him feel better while he's recovering, for example.

When it comes to fighting illness, there are many types of medicines. Antibiotics are one type that a lot of kids have taken. This type of medicine kills germs that don't belong in the body. So when the doctor found out the type of bacteria that causes strep throat was making you feel so terrible, she could prescribe just the right kind of medicine.

But what if you felt achy and hot at the same time, and the doctor recommended to your parent that you also take a pain reliever? Pain relievers are one example of a type of medicine that relieves symptoms of an illness. These medicines can't make you well, but they do help you feel better while you're getting well. If you've ever had a cold and took cold medicine to dry up your runny nose or sucked on lozenges for your scratchy throat, you used medicines that relieved symptoms of your cold. Or if you've ever gotten an itchy bug bite and were given a cream to stop the itching, that's also an example of how this type of medicine is used. Your cold had to go away on its own, just like the bug bite needed to heal on its own, but in the meantime you could feel less sick or itchy by using these medicines.

Finally, there are very important medicines that keep people from getting sick in the first place. Some of these are called immunizations (say: im-yoo-nizz-ay-shuns), and they are usually given as a shot. They prevent people from catching serious illnesses like measles and mumps. There is even an immunization that prevents chicken pox, and many people try to keep from getting the flu each winter by getting a flu shot. While these shots are never fun, they are a very important part of staying healthy.

A Million Ways to Take Medicine
Well, there may not be a million ways to take medicine, but there are many ways. That's because some medicines work best in the body when they are given a certain way. A lot of medicines are swallowed, either as a pill or a liquid. Once the medicine is swallowed, the digestive juices in the stomach break it down, and the medicine can pass into the bloodstream. Your blood then carries it to other parts of your body.

But some medicines have chemicals that would be changed too much if they were broken down by digestive juices, or would take too long to work if they were swallowed. When you get a shot from the doctor, this sends the medicine directly through your skin and allows it to be quickly absorbed into your blood. Other medicines work best when they are inhaled directly into the lungs, like some of the medicines used to treat asthma. Still others work best when they are applied directly to the spot that needs the medicine - like putting an ointment on an infected cut, or dropping ear drops into a clogged-up ear.

Mind Your Medicines
So medicines sound like a pretty good thing, right? In many cases they are - as long as they are used correctly. Too much of a medicine can be harmful, and old or outdated medicines can make people sick. Taking the wrong medicine or medicine prescribed for someone else is also very bad news. Always follow your doctor's instructions for taking medicine - especially for how long. If she says to take medicine for ten days, take it for the whole time, even if you start to feel better sooner. Those medicines need time to make you better!

Reviewed by: Steve Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: May 2001
Originally reviewed by: Lisa Zaoutis, MD

Source: KidsHealth is a project of The Nemours Foundation which is dedicated to improving the health and spirit of children. Today, as part of its continuing mission, the Foundation supports the operation of a number of renowned children's health facilities throughout the nation, including the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware, and the Nemours Children's Clinics throughout Florida.  Visit The Nemours Foundation to find out more about them and its health facilities for children