Disinfection denotes the inactivation or killing of pathogens (protozoa, bacteria, fungi, viruses) in the human environment. This can be achieved by chemical or physical means; the latter will not be discussed here. Sterilization refers to the killing of all germs, whether pathogenic, dormant, or nonpathogenic. Antisepsis refers to the reduction by chemical agents of germ numbers on skin and mucosal surfaces.
Agents for chemical disinfection ideally should cause rapid, complete, and persistent inactivation of all germs, but at the same time exhibit low toxicity (systemic toxicity, tissue irritancy, antigenicity) and be non-deleterious to inanimate materials. These requirements call for chemical properties that may exclude each other; therefore, compromises guided by the intended use have to be made.
Disinfectants come from various chemical classes, including oxidants, halogens or halogen-releasing agents, alcohols, aldehydes, organic acids, phenols, cationic surfactants (detergents) and formerly also heavy metals. The basic mechanisms of action involve de-naturation of proteins, inhibition of enzymes, or a dehydration. Effects are dependent on concentration and contact time.
Activity spectrum. Disinfectants inactivate bacteria (gram-positive > gram-negative > mycobacteria), less effectively their sporal forms, and a few (e.g., formaldehyde) are virucidal.
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