A Patient's Guide to Proper Antibiotic Usage

Yvette C. Terrie, BSPharm, RPh
Published Online: Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Antibiotics are the drugs your doctor prescribes to treat infections caused by bacteria. Since the 1940s, they have been "the first line of defense" in treating bacterial infections. Yet, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than half of all antibiotics prescribed are not necessary.

Antibiotics are not effective against viruses and therefore should not be used to treat them. Common examples of infections caused by viruses include colds and flu.

Overuse and inappropriate use of antibiotics can make them not work when you need them, because bacteria develop resistance to them. This resistance causes the bacteria to thrive and potentially cause more harm.

What Is Antibiotic Resistance?

The development of antibiotic resistance is one of the most challenging problems in health care today. It occurs when the bacteria change in a way that reduces or stops the effectiveness of antibiotics. When this occurs, the bacteria can survive and continue to grow and strengthen.

If you take antibiotics and really do not need them, they may lose their strength and ability to effectively treat the bacteria. The most important way to reduce or prevent antibiotic resistance is by educating yourself about the proper use of antibiotics.

Steps to Reduce Antibiotic Resistance

  • Never insist that your doctor prescribe an antibiotic for you
  • Practice good hand-washing techniques to reduce your risk of getting or spreading an infection—hands should be washed with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds
  • Never take antibiotics for viral infections
  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle by eating a balanced diet, drinking enough liquids, exercising, and getting enough rest
  • Never take antibiotics that were prescribed for someone else
  • Never take antibiotics that were left over from a previous infection
  • If antibiotics are prescribed for you, finish them even if you feel better

When to Take (or Not to Take) Antibiotics

Knowing when you may need an antibiotic depends on the kind of infection you have.

The first step is to consult your physician to determine whether your infection is bacterial or viral. Always consult your doctor if you suspect that you have an infection of any kind.

Colds and Flu

As stated above, viruses cause these diseases. Antibiotic therapy will not cure them. Talk to your health care provider about the many over-the-counter medications available to treat the symptoms of colds and flu.

Remember to inform your doctor or pharmacist about all the medications you are currently taking so as to avoid harmful drug interactions.

Sore Throats

Viruses typically cause sore throats, but bacteria, such as in strep throat, can cause some. Your physician may do a culture and a sensitivity test before prescribing antibiotic therapy.

Sinus Infections

Both viruses and bacteria can cause these infections. If you have a runny nose with yellow or green mucus, you may need an antibiotic, so consult your physician.

Ear Infections

These infections do not always require antibiotic treatment, because both viruses and bacteria can cause them.

Coughs and Bronchitis

Viruses almost always cause these conditions. However, if you have had a medical problem with your lungs before, bacteria may be involved, and an antibiotic may be prescribed. Consult your doctor about any prolonged coughs, especially coughs with phlegm.

Proper Use of Antibiotics

When an antibiotic is prescribed for you, you should take the following steps:

  • Inform your physician of any allergies you have—such as a penicillin allergy—prior to receiving any antibiotics. Women should inform their doctor if they are pregnant. Women also should be aware that some antibiotics could make their birth control pills less effective or make them more susceptible to developing a yeast infection. Your health care provider will discuss recommendations to address these issues.
  • Be sure to take the complete amount of antibiotic prescribed according to the physician's instructions. Failure to comply may result in a reoccurrence of the bacterial infection. Know how and when to take your antibiotic.
  • Ask your pharmacist about potential side effects, and contact your physician immediately if serious reactions occur.
  • If you miss a dose, do not double the next dose. Simply resume with the next scheduled dose as directed.
  • Because some foods and alcohol may interact badly with antibiotics, discuss with your pharmacist whether you should take antibiotics on an empty or full stomach.
  • Make sure that antibiotics are stored properly. Although most may be stored at room temperature in a dry place, some require refrigeration.

Antibiotics can be very powerful in treating bacterial infections when they are used properly. To maintain their effectiveness, they should be used only when necessary.

The best way to combat infections is to educate yourself and those around you on the proper way to treat infections without causing harm or making things worse.

Ms. Terrie is a clinical pharmacy writer based in Slidell, La.



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