Antibiotics: When Less is More

The way doctors prescribe antibiotics can be confusing. Why do they prescribe them at some times but not at others, and for one patient but not the next?

Antibiotics have been extremely effective and often lifesaving in the treatment of some infectious diseases, but they don’t cure all illnesses and can sometimes even cause significant medical problems. Therefore, it is important that antibiotics are taken properly.

Health care providers have seen unfortunate complications of inappropriate antibiotic use and, as a result, avoid using these potent medications if not needed. Antibiotics are prescribed when appropriate but are not used when dealing with a viral infection where the medication will not help and has the potential for significant harm. While it is tempting for individuals to look for a quick and easy cure when ill, more often than not, antibiotics are not the answer.

Antibiotics fight bacterial (not viral) infections:

Antibiotics typically are effective against bacteria but not against viruses. Therefore, antibiotics do not help in viral illnesses such as mononeucleosis, flu and colds.

Clinicians use clinical history, examination and laboratory tests to distinguish between viral and bacterial infections. Clinicians may use cultures from the throat, sputum, urine, blood or wound to identify the bacteria along with its antibiotic sensitivity. This information helps the clinician choose an antibiotic that will be effective.

Complications of antibiotic use include:

Allergic reactions: You can develop an allergy at any time, even if you have safely used the antibiotic in the past. Prior use is not a guarantee that a person will not develop an allergic response. Most allergic reactions to antibiotics are relatively minor skin reactions. However, occasionally life-threatening allergic reactions occur, with swelling of the throat and difficulty breathing. If you think you are having an allergic reaction, stop taking the medication and contact your doctor.

Impact on body balance: Antibiotics cannot distinguish between normal body bacteria and disease-causing bacteria. The result is often a disturbance in the natural balance of organisms, which may lead to severe diarrhea or, more commonly, yeast vaginitis in women. Other complications may arise from the side effects of certain antibiotics, such as severe gastrointestinal upset, sun sensitivity and interactions with other medications.

Bacterial resistance: Many people mistakenly believe that people can “get used to” an antibiotic. This is not the case, but bacteria can develop resistance to an antibiotic. The more antibiotics are used, the more resistance is evident. Some bacteria are resistant to all known antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance has become a major concern in some developing countries where antibiotics are available without prescription.

Tips for using antibiotics:

  • Take your antibiotic as instructed by your doctor.
  • Take an antibiotic until all the medication is gone.
  • Take an antibiotic only for the condition for which it is prescribed.
  • Certain antibiotics may interact with food or other medications or may make you more sensitive to sunlight or cause dizziness. Consult your doctor if you are unsure about such interactions.
  • Alert your doctor to any new medical conditions that arise during your antibiotic therapy.
  • Never share antibiotics with friends or family.
  • Do not take expired antibiotics.

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