The Truth About Antibiotics

Winter is the season for holiday celebrations and family get-togethers. It is also the season for sinus infections, ear infections, colds, and influenza. If you have children, chances are your household will get hit with at least one of these illnesses before the tulips bloom again.

One winter illness topic that frustrates physicians most revolves around the use of antibiotics.

What antibiotics are good for

Just about every individual has felt the “magic” of antibiotics:  You have a bacterial infection, and you feel so sick and so much pain…but within 24 hours of taking antibiotics, you start to feel back to your normal self. It feels like a miracle! That’s why many people ask their doctors for antibiotics when they feel ill. If it worked to clear up the ear infection, it should work to cure the flu, right? Wrong.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), antibiotics are drugs used for treating infections caused by bacteria. Just bacteria. Antibiotics have no effect on viruses, including influenza and the common cold. If you have a virus, taking antibiotics will not make you feel better, and may actually cause unpleasant side effects. Worse, taking antibiotics when you don’t have a bacterial infection may contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria

Misuse and overuse of these antibiotics have contributed to a phenomenon known as antibiotic resistance. This resistance develops when potentially harmful bacteria change in a way that reduces or eliminates the effectiveness of antibiotics. Basically, it creates super-bacteria. When a person is infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, not only is treatment of that patient more difficult, but the antibiotic-resistant bacteria may spread to other people.

What should you do? As a patient, your best approach is to ask your health care professional whether an antibiotic is likely to be effective for your condition. If the answer is “no,” don’t push for a prescription for antibiotics. If antibiotics are appropriate, your doctor will be the first to offer a prescription.

So how do you know if you have a bad cold or a bacterial infection? According to the FDA:

Joseph Toerner, M.D., MPH, a medical officer in FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, says that the symptoms of a cold or flu generally lessen over the course of a week. But if you have a fever and other symptoms that persist and worsen with the passage of days, you may have a bacterial infection and should consult your health care provider.

Taking antibiotics properly

If you are prescribed antibiotics, it is important to take the medication exactly as directed. The FDA offers these guidelines:

  • Complete the full course of the drug. It’s important to take all of the medication, even if you are feeling better. If treatment stops too soon, the drug may not kill all the bacteria. You may become sick again, and the remaining bacteria may become resistant to the antibiotic that you’ve taken.
  • Do not skip doses. Antibiotics are most effective when they are taken regularly.
  • Do not save antibiotics. You might think that you can save an antibiotic for the next time you get sick, but an antibiotic is meant for your particular infection at the time. Never take leftover medicine. Taking the wrong medicine can delay getting the appropriate treatment and may allow your condition to worsen.
  • Do not take antibiotics prescribed for someone else. These may not be appropriate for your illness, may delay correct treatment, and may allow your condition to worsen.
  • Talk with your health care professional. Ask questions, especially if you are uncertain about when an antibiotic is appropriate or how to take it.
  • Report side effects. It’s important that you let your health care professional know of any troublesome side effects. Different antibiotics can have different side effects. If you have a bad reaction to one, your doctor may write a prescription for a different medication. But don’t just stop taking the drug without consulting your physician.

We wish you the best of health today and throughout the year. But if you do happen to become ill, see your doctor and follow his or her directions for how to feel better faster…with or without antibiotics.

To learn more about antibiotics, visit the FDA’s webpage here: Combating Antibiotic Resistance

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