Medicines: Definition, Types, Uses & History

Medicines are substances that are used to prevent, treat, or cure diseases. They can be natural or synthetic, and they can act on different parts of the body or the whole system.

Medicines have been used by humans for thousands of years, and they have shaped the course of history and civilization. In this article, we will explore the definition, types, uses, and history of medicines, and how they work in the human body.

What are Medicines?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a medicine is “any substance or mixture of substances manufactured, sold or represented for use in:

  • The diagnosis, treatment, mitigation or prevention of a disease, disorder, abnormal physical state, or the symptoms thereof, in humans or animals; or
  • Restoring, correcting or modifying organic functions in humans or animals.”

Medicines can be classified into different categories based on their origin, chemical structure, mode of action, therapeutic effect, or legal status.

Some of the common types of medicines are:

  • Antibiotics: These are medicines that kill or inhibit the growth of bacteria, such as penicillin, tetracycline, and erythromycin. They are used to treat bacterial infections, such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, and gonorrhoea.
  • Analgesics: These are medicines that relieve pain, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and morphine. They are used to treat acute or chronic pain, such as headache, toothache, and arthritis.
  • Antihistamines: These are medicines that block the action of histamine, a chemical that causes allergic reactions, such as diphenhydramine, cetirizine, and loratadine. They are used to treat allergies, such as hay fever, asthma, and hives.
  • Antidepressants: These are medicines that affect the mood and emotions, such as fluoxetine, sertraline, and bupropion. They are used to treat depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders.
  • Vaccines: These are medicines that stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies, which protect the body from specific diseases, such as measles, polio, and tetanus. They are used to prevent infectious diseases, especially in children.
  • Hormones: These are medicines that regulate the functions of various organs and tissues, such as insulin, thyroxine, and oestrogen. They are used to treat hormonal disorders, such as diabetes, hypothyroidism, and menopause.

How do Medicines Work?

Medicines work by interacting with specific molecules in the body, called targets, which are usually proteins, such as enzymes, receptors, or transporters.

These targets are involved in various biological processes, such as metabolism, signalling, or transport. By binding to these targets, medicines can either enhance or inhibit their activity, thereby altering the normal function of the cells, tissues, or organs.

For example,

Aspirin works by inhibiting the enzyme cyclooxygenase, which is responsible for producing prostaglandins, which are inflammatory mediators.

By reducing the production of prostaglandins, aspirin reduces inflammation, pain, and fever. Similarly, insulin works by binding to the insulin receptor, which is a protein that regulates the uptake of glucose from the blood into the cells.

By increasing the uptake of glucose, insulin lowers the blood sugar level and prevents diabetes.

The effectiveness and safety of a medicine depend on several factors, such as its dose, route of administration, absorption, distribution, metabolism, excretion, and interaction with other medicines or substances.

These factors determine how much of the medicine reaches the target, how long it stays in the body, and how it is eliminated from the body.

A medicine can have different effects on different people, depending on their age, weight, gender, genetics, health status, and environmental factors. Therefore, it is important to follow the instructions and precautions given by the doctor or pharmacist when using a medicine.

What is the History of Medicines?

The history of medicines is a fascinating and complex story that spans across cultures, continents, and centuries. The earliest evidence of medicine use dates back to the prehistoric times, when humans used plants, animals, minerals, and other natural substances to heal wounds, relieve pain, and treat diseases.

Some of the ancient civilizations that developed sophisticated systems of medicine include:

¡》Egyptian medicine:

The Egyptians were one of the first to record their medical knowledge and practices in papyri, such as the Ebers Papyrus and the Edwin Smith Papyrus, which date back to around 1500 BC.

They used a variety of herbs, oils, spices, and animal products to treat various ailments, such as wounds, infections, headaches, and stomach problems. They also performed surgeries, such as circumcision, caesarean section, and trepanation (drilling a hole in the skull).

¡¡》Chinese medicine:

The Chinese developed a holistic approach to medicine, based on the concept of yin and yang, which are the opposing and complementary forces that govern the universe and the human body.

They also used the theory of five elements, which are wood, fire, earth, metal, and water, which correspond to different organs, emotions, and seasons.

They used acupuncture, moxibustion, massage, herbal remedies, and dietary therapy to balance the yin and yang and the five elements, and to treat various diseases.

They also wrote the Huangdi Neijing, or the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon, which is considered the oldest and most influential medical text in China, around the 2nd century BC.

¡¡¡》Indian medicine:

The Indians developed a system of medicine called Ayurveda, which means “the science of life”. Ayurveda is based on the concept of three doshas, which are vata, pitta, and kapha, which are the vital energies that regulate the body and mind.

They also used the concept of four elements, which are earth, water, fire, and air, which correspond to different body types, temperaments, and diseases.

They used yoga, meditation, massage, herbal remedies, and dietary therapy to balance the doshas and the elements, and to treat various diseases. They also wrote the Charaka Samhita and the Sushruta Samhita, which are the two main texts of Ayurveda, around the 1st century AD.

¡V》Greek medicine:

The Greeks were the first to apply rational and empirical methods to medicine, and to separate it from religion and superstition.

They used the concept of four humors, which are blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile, which are the fluids that determine the health and temperament of a person.

They also used the concept of four qualities, which are hot, cold, wet, and dry, which correspond to different seasons, climates, and diseases. They used observation, diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment to balance the humors and the qualities, and to treat various diseases.

They also wrote the Hippocratic Corpus, which is a collection of medical writings attributed to Hippocrates, who is considered the father of medicine, around the 5th century BC.

V》Roman medicine:

The Romans adopted and expanded the Greek medicine, and applied it to their vast empire. They built hospitals, aqueducts, sewers, and public baths to improve the hygiene and health of the population.

They also used surgery, bloodletting, purging, and herbal remedies to treat various diseases. They also wrote the De Medicina, which is a comprehensive medical encyclopaedia written by Aulus Cornelius Celsus, around the 1st century AD.

The history of medicine continued to evolve and advance with the contributions of many other civilizations and cultures, such as the Islamic, Persian, Arabic, African, Native American, and European.

Some of the major discoveries and developments that shaped the modern medicine include:

Anatomy: The study of the structure and function of the human body, which was advanced by the works of Andreas Vesalius, William Harvey, and others.

Microbiology: The study of the microorganisms that cause diseases, which was advanced by the works of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, and others.

Pharmacology: The study of the effects and uses of drugs, which was advanced by the works of Paracelsus, William Withering, Alexander Fleming, and others.

Immunology: The study of the immune system and its response to diseases, which was advanced by the works of Edward Jenner, Paul Ehrlich, and others.

Genetics: The study of the inheritance and variation of traits, which was advanced by the works of Gregor Mendel, James Watson, Francis Crick, and others.

Biotechnology: The use of biological processes and organisms to produce useful products, such as vaccines, hormones, and enzymes, which was advanced by the works of Frederick Sanger, Herbert Boyer, and others.


Medicines are an essential part of human health and well-being. They have a long and rich history that reflects the diversity and creativity of human cultures and civilizations.

They work by interacting with specific targets in the body, and they can have different effects on different people. They can be classified into different types based on their origin, structure, action, effect, or status.

They can be used to prevent, treat, or cure various diseases, but they can also have side effects or interactions. Therefore, it is important to use them wisely and responsibly, and to consult a doctor or pharmacist before using them.


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