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By Ron Aylor, CPhT

Pharmacokinetics is the study of how a patient's body will process a substance from introduction to elimination. Basically, it's the journey the substance encounters as it makes its way through the body and what the body does to it. Please don't confuse it with Pharmacodynamics, which is the study of how a drug will affect a patient, it's the other way around.

The Basics

There are four basic processes that the body puts the drug through. A.D.M.E. is the acronym in pharmacology for those four simultaneously occurring processes; Absorption, Distribution, Metabolism, and Excretion. These four processes working together, are responsible for blood concentrations of a drug within the body. When viewed altogether, the four processes are called disposition.

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For a drug to reach its intended site of action, it must be taken into the bloodstream. The process of releasing a drug from its dosage formulation and transferring it into the bloodstream is called absorption. This process occurs to some extent regardless of formulation or route of administration; drugs injected directly into the bloodstream must still be absorbed.

Three factors affect the absorption of a drug: its water solubility, its fat solubility, and the transport mechanisms of the body. It is imperative that you understand that all drugs must be in solution before they can be absorbed.

Drug half life
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All body fluids are water based. Therefore, a drug must be soluble in water in order to be absorbed. Dissolution of the drug in aqueous (water) solution is dependent on the pH of the solution and the disintegration of the drug. The speed at which a dosage form disintegrates is dependent upon the type of solid dosage form and the manufacturing process used to make that dosage form. Solid dosage forms can be a tablet, suppository, capsule, powder, or a suspension. Take for example a tablet. The manufacturer may add starch to a tablet in order to make it swell when added to water. A tablet may be a sub-lingual tab made to rapidly dissolve in the mouth. The contents of a tablet could be compressed under great pressure so that it will dissolve more slowly. Further, an enteric coating may be applied to a tablet so that it will pass through the stomach and dissolve in the intestine. In the case of some capsules, "extended release capsules" systematically dissolve over a period of time, prolonging the effect of the drug.


Once a drug is absorbed, it enters the circulation and is carried throughout the body. The destination within in the body varies from drug to drug. The drug may be stored in bone or fat, bound to the proteins in the blood plasma, or circulate freely as the unbound drug. The drug will find its way into many organs. Yet finally, some of the drug will reach the target tissue where it can cause the effect for which it was administered.

drug in bloodstream
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The distribution of a drug within the body happens in a very systematic way. Assume that 10 mg of a drug have been absorbed and distributed based on the percentages in the illustration above. Of the 10 mg absorbed, only 0.2 mg of the drug will arrive at the target tissue to give the desired pharmacological effect. If 0.2 mg is enough drugs to produce the desired effect, all is well. However, if the amount of drug required to produce the effect is 1 mg, the desired effect will not be obtained. The dose can be increased so that 50 milligrams of the drug can be absorbed, thus providing the amount of drug needed to give the desired effect. However, increasing the dose may present problems. Increasing the dose would also increase the amount of drug in the other areas of the body. Perhaps this increased dosage may produce some response by another body organ. For example, the patient may become nauseous, vomit, lose his hair, or go into convulsions. These are all side effects of the drug. It is important to remember that the whole body must be taken into account when a drug is administered.

Another area of concern in the distribution of drugs is the crossing of the placental barrier. Drugs may actively or passively cross the placental barrier and enter the fetal circulation. The enzyme systems of a developing fetus may not be able to adequately metabolize certain drugs and toxic effects can result.


The above processes of absorption and distribution are dynamic. That is, it is continually changing. Even as the drug is being distributed, the individual cells of the body begin to chemically change or alter the drug. This metabolic process of changing the drug is called metabolism or bio-transformation. The liver changes drugs to make them more water-soluble so that they may be more easily excreted from the body.

As metabolism occurs, the initial drug is converted to new compounds called metabolites. When metabolites are pharmacologically inert, metabolism deactivates the administered dose of drug and this usually reduces the effects on the body. Drugs can undergo one of four potential bio-transformations: Active Drug to Inactive Metabolite, Active Drug to Active Metabolite, Inactive Drug to Active Metabolite, Active Drug to Toxic Metabolite (bio-toxification). Metabolites may also be pharmacologically active, sometimes more so than the parent drug.


Excretion is the process of eliminating a drug or its metabolites from the body. The major organ of excretion is the kidney. The kidneys filter blood and remove waste materials. The resulting fluid is excreted from the body as urine.

Secondary routes of excretion are hepatic (liver), through the bile into the feces, lungs, saliva, sweat, and breast milk. The inability of a patient to excrete drugs and other waste can be life threatening. Patients who have limited liver and kidney function usually require lower doses of medication, due to the fact that more of the drug tends to stay in the body.

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