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How Drugs Work in Your Body


Updated May 01, 2014

How Drugs Work in Your Body

Drugs work in your body in a variety of ways. They can interfere with microorganisms (germs) that invade your body, destroy abnormal cells that cause cancer, replace deficient substances (such as hormones or vitamins), or change the way that cells work in your body.

There are more than 8,000 medications available either by prescription or over-the-counter. Some can be used to treat several different health conditions. Aspirin, for example, can be used to treat pain, inflammation, and fever. In addition, aspirin can prevent heart attacks if taken on a regular basis.

The following information is a basic overview of how some drugs work to improve your health.

Fighting Infections

An infection occurs when microorganisms, such as bacteria or viruses, invade your body. Medications used to treat infections can kill germs directly or prevent them from multiplying and growing.

Some medications used to treat infections include:

Targeting Cancer Cells

There are three types of medications used to treat cancer. Chemotherapy attacks cancer cells directly and stops or slows their growth and spread. Biological therapy helps your body’s immune system fight cancer. Lastly, antiangiogenic therapy blocks the growth of new blood vessels to a tumor, which may cut off a tumor's supply of oxygen and nutrients. Some cancers are treated with a combination of these medications.

Some medications used to treat cancer are:

Replacing Missing or Deficient Substances

Your body needs certain levels of amino acids (or proteins), vitamins and minerals to work properly. If these substances are deficient or missing, you can develop health conditions such as scurvy (vitamin C deficiency), anemia (iron deficiency), and pernicious anemia (vitamin B12 deficiency). Recent medical studies have suggest that a lack of vitamin D may increase the risk of heart attack in men. Your physician, therefore, may recommend a vitamin D supplement.

You also can develop a deficiency disorder caused by a lack of hormones in your body. Hormones regulate many of the functions in your body, and a deficiency in one or more hormones can cause serious health problems. Diabetes (insulin deficiency), hypothyroidism (thyroid hormone deficiency), and short stature (growth hormone deficiency) are some examples.

Some medications used to treat hormone deficiency disorders are:

Changing How Cells Work

Most common chronic diseases -- such as asthma, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, heart disease, and some types of mental illness -- are caused by an abnormality in how the cells in your body function. These abnormalities may be caused by aging of cells, genetics, wear and tear on the body, and lifestyle issues such as smoking, lack of exercise, poor eating habits, and environmental stress and pollution.

Most medications prescribed or sold over the counter target one or more of these cell abnormalities. For example, some medications used to treat pain and inflammation interfere with the production of chemical substances that are released by cells in response to tissue damage. These chemical substances, also known as mediators, are responsible for the pain and swelling in arthritis and injuries.

Some medications used to treat depression work by increasing the amount of a chemical messenger in the brain. Additionally, some other medications make cells more or less sensitive to hormones in the body. Beta blockers, such as Tenormin (atenolol) and Toprol XL (metoprolol), are used to treat hypertension by making heart cells less sensitive to the body’s adrenaline. Some oral diabetes medications, such as Actos (pioglitazone) and Avandia (rosiglitazone), make muscle cells more sensitive to insulin.

Some medications that alter the function of body cells are:

About bacteria & antibiotics. Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics. 03 July 2008.
Angiogenesis Inhibitors Therapy: Questions and Answers. National Cancer Institute. 03 July 2008.
Biological Therapies for Cancer: Questions and Answers. National Cancer Institute. 03 July 2008.
How Medications Work. Johns Hopkins Prescription Drugs Reports. 03 July 2008.
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