Merck Manual

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Abimbola Farinde

, PhD, PharmD, Columbia Southern University, Orange Beach, AL

Reviewed/Revised Jun 2021 | Modified Sep 2022
Topic Resources

After being swallowed, injected, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin, mucosa under the tongue, or mucosa inside the cheek, most drugs enter the bloodstream and circulate throughout the body. (See also Definition of Drug Dynamics Definition of Drug Dynamics Drug dynamics (pharmacodynamics) involves what a drug does to the human body. Drug dynamics describes the following properties of drugs: Therapeutic effects (such as relief of pain and reduction... read more .) Some drugs are given directly to the area where they are wanted. For example, eye drops are put directly into the eyes. The drugs then interact with cells or tissues where they produce their intended effects (target sites). This interaction is called selectivity.

Selectivity is the degree to which a drug acts on a given site relative to other sites.

Relatively nonselective drugs affect many different tissues or organs. For example, atropine, a drug given to relax muscles in the digestive tract, may also relax muscles in the eyes and in the respiratory tract.

Relatively selective drugs, for example, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin and ibuprofen (see Nonopioid Analgesics Nonopioid Pain Relievers Pain relievers (analgesics) are the main drugs used to treat pain. Doctors choose a pain reliever based on the type and duration of pain and on the drug's likely benefits and risks. Most pain... read more ), target any area where inflammation is present.

Highly selective drugs affect mainly a single organ or system. For example, digoxin, a drug given to manage heart failure, affects mainly the heart, increasing its pumping efficiency. Sleep aids target certain nerve cells of the brain.

How do drugs know where to exert their effects? The answer involves how they interact with cells or substances such as enzymes.

Receptors on Cells

On their surface, most cells have many different types of receptors. A receptor is a molecule with a specific three-dimensional structure, which allows only substances that fit precisely to attach to it—as a key fits in its lock.

Receptors enable natural (originating in the body) substances outside the cell to influence the activity of the cell. Examples of such substances include neurotransmitters (chemicals that conduct messages between cells in the nervous system) and hormones (chemicals released into the bloodstream by one organ to affect another organ). That influence may be to stimulate or inhibit a process inside the cell. Drugs tend to mimic these natural substances and thus use receptors in the same way. For example, morphine and related pain-relieving drugs act on or affect the same receptors in the brain used by endorphins, which are substances produced by the body to help control pain.

Some drugs attach to only one type of receptor. Other drugs, like a master key, can attach to several types of receptors throughout the body. A drug’s selectivity can often be explained by how selectively it attaches to receptors.

A Perfect Fit

A receptor on the cell’s surface has a three-dimensional structure that allows a specific substance, such as a drug, hormone, or neurotransmitter, to bind to it because the substance has a three-dimensional structure that perfectly fits the receptor, as a key fits a lock.

A Perfect Fit

Agonists and antagonists

Drugs that target receptors are classified as agonists or antagonists. Agonist drugs activate, or stimulate, their receptors, triggering a response that increases or decreases the cell’s activity. Antagonist drugs block the access or attachment of the body’s natural agonists, usually neurotransmitters, to their receptors and thereby prevent or reduce cell responses to natural agonists.

Agonist and antagonist drugs can be used together in people with asthma. For example, albuterol can be used with ipratropium. Albuterol, an agonist, attaches to specific (adrenergic) receptors on cells in the respiratory tract, causing relaxation of smooth muscle cells and thus widening of the airways (bronchodilation). Ipratropium, an antagonist, attaches to other (cholinergic) receptors, blocking the attachment of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that causes contraction of smooth muscle cells and thus narrowing of the airways (bronchoconstriction). Both drugs widen the airways (and make breathing easier) but in different ways.

Beta-blockers, such as propranolol, are a widely used group of antagonists. These drugs are used to treat high blood pressure, angina (chest pain caused by an inadequate blood supply to the heart muscle), and certain abnormal heart rhythms and to prevent migraines. They block or reduce stimulation of the heart by the agonist neurotransmitters epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline), which are released during stress. Antagonists such as beta-blockers are most effective when the concentration of the agonist is high in a specific part of the body. Similar to the way a roadblock stops more vehicles during the 5:00 PM rush hour than at 3:00 AM, beta-blockers, given in doses that have little effect on normal heart function, may have a greater effect during sudden surges of hormones released during stress and thereby protect the heart from excess stimulation.



Instead of receptors, some drugs target enzymes, which regulate the rate of chemical reactions. Drugs that target enzymes are classified as inhibitors or activators (inducers). For example, the cholesterol-lowering drug lovastatin inhibits an enzyme called HMG-CoA reductase, which is critical in the body’s production of cholesterol. A side effect of the antibiotic rifampin is the activation of the enzymes involved in metabolizing oral contraceptives. When women who are taking an oral contraceptive also take rifampin, the contraceptive is metabolized (that is, broken down into inactive components) and removed from the body more quickly than usual and may therefore be ineffective.

Chemical Interactions

Some drugs produce effects without changing the function of a cell and without attaching to a receptor. For example, most antacids decrease stomach acid through simple chemical reactions. Antacids are bases that chemically interact with acids to neutralize stomach acid.

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Generic Name Select Brand Names
Atreza, Atropine Care , Atropisol , Isopto Atropine, Ocu-Tropine, Sal-Tropine
Anacin Adult Low Strength, Aspergum, Aspir-Low, Aspirtab , Aspir-Trin , Bayer Advanced Aspirin, Bayer Aspirin, Bayer Aspirin Extra Strength, Bayer Aspirin Plus, Bayer Aspirin Regimen, Bayer Children's Aspirin, Bayer Extra Strength, Bayer Extra Strength Plus, Bayer Genuine Aspirin, Bayer Low Dose Aspirin Regimen, Bayer Womens Aspirin , BeneHealth Aspirin, Bufferin, Bufferin Extra Strength, Bufferin Low Dose, DURLAZA, Easprin , Ecotrin, Ecotrin Low Strength, Genacote, Halfprin, MiniPrin, St. Joseph Adult Low Strength, St. Joseph Aspirin, VAZALORE, Zero Order Release Aspirin, ZORprin
Advil, Advil Children's, Advil Children's Fever, Advil Infants', Advil Junior Strength, Advil Migraine, Caldolor, Children's Ibuprofen, ElixSure IB, Genpril , Ibren , IBU, Midol, Midol Cramps and Body Aches, Motrin, Motrin Children's, Motrin IB, Motrin Infants', Motrin Junior Strength, Motrin Migraine Pain, PediaCare Children's Pain Reliever/Fever Reducer IB, PediaCare Infants' Pain Reliever/Fever Reducer IB, Samson-8
Digitek , Lanoxicaps, Lanoxin, Lanoxin Pediatric
ARYMO ER, Astramorph PF, Avinza, DepoDur, Duramorph PF, Infumorph, Kadian, MITIGO, MORPHABOND, MS Contin, MSIR, Opium Tincture, Oramorph SR, RMS, Roxanol, Roxanol-T
Accuneb, ProAir digihaler, Proair HFA, ProAir RespiClick, Proventil, Proventil HFA, Proventil Repetabs, Respirol , Ventolin, Ventolin HFA, Ventolin Syrup, Volmax, VoSpire ER
Atrovent, Atrovent HFA
HEMANGEOL, Inderal, Inderal LA, Inderal XL, InnoPran XL
Altoprev, Mevacor
Rifadin, Rifadin IV, Rimactane
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