Any chemical agent that affects the function of living things. Some, including antibiotics, stimulants, tranquilizers, antidepressants, analgesics, narcotics, and hormones, have generalized effects. Others, including laxatives, heart stimulants, anticoagulants, diuretics, and antihistamines, act on specific systems. Vaccines are sometimes considered drugs. Drugs may protect against attacking organisms (by killing them, stopping them from reproducing, or blocking their effects on the host), substitute for a missing or defective substance in the body, or interrupt an abnormal process. A drug must bind with receptors in or on cells and cannot work if the receptors are absent or its configuration does not fit theirs. Drugs may be given by mouth, by injection, by inhalation, rectally, or through the skin. The oldest existing catalogue of drugs is a stone tablet from ancient Babylonia (c. 1700 BC); the modern drug era began when antibiotics were discovered in 1928. Synthetic versions of natural drugs led to design of drugs based on chemical structure. Drugs must be not only effective but safe; side effects can range from minor to dangerous (see drug poisoning). Many illegal drugs also have medical uses (see cocaine; heroin; drug addiction). See also drug resistance; pharmacology; pharmacy.

This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise.
For the full entry on drug, visit Britannica.com.

Seen & Heard

What made you look up drug? Please tell us what you were reading, watching or discussing that led you here.