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Using Antibiotics Wisely

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Topic Overview

What are antibiotics?

Antibiotics are medicines that kill bacteria. Bacteria can cause infections such as strep throat, ear infections, urinary tract infections, and sinus infections (sinusitis).

There are many types of antibiotics. Each works a little differently and acts on different types of bacteria. Your doctor will decide which antibiotic will work best for your infection.

Don't antibiotics cure everything?

Antibiotics are powerful medicines, but they cannot cure everything. Antibiotics do not work against illnesses that are caused by a virus. They do not help illnesses such as:

These illnesses usually go away by themselves. Ask your doctor what you can do to feel better.

Why not take antibiotics just in case?

If you take antibiotics when you do not need them, they may not work when you do need them. Each time you take antibiotics, you are more likely to have some bacteria that the medicine does not kill. These bacteria can change (mutate) so they are harder to kill. Then, the antibiotics that used to kill them no longer work. These bacteria are called antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

These tougher bacteria can cause longer and more serious infections. To treat them you may need different, stronger antibiotics that have more side effects than the first medicine and may cost more.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria also can spread to family members, children, and fellow workers. Your community then will have a risk of getting an infection that is harder to cure and costs more to treat. Some antibiotics that doctors prescribed in the past to treat common infections no longer work.

Taking antibiotics you do not need will not help you feel better, cure your illness, or keep others from catching your infection. But taking them may cause side effects such as:

  • Nausea.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Stomach pain.
  • An allergic reaction. In rare cases, this reaction can require emergency care.

Antibiotics also can cause Clostridium difficile colitis (also called C. difficile colitis), a swelling and irritation of the large intestine, or colon camera.gif. This happens because the antibiotics kill the normal bacteria in your intestine and allow the C. difficile bacteria to grow. This problem can cause diarrhea, fever, and belly cramps. In rare cases, it can cause death.

Women may get vaginal yeast infections from taking antibiotics.

How can I help to make sure that antibiotics are the best treatment for me?

Be smart about using antibiotics. Know that antibiotics can help treat infections caused by bacteria but not by viruses. Here are some things you can do to help make sure antibiotics will work when you need them:

  • Always ask your doctor if antibiotics are the best treatment. Explain that you do not want antibiotics unless you need them.
  • Avoid pressuring your doctor into prescribing antibiotics when they won't help you feel better or cure your illness. Ask your doctor what else you can do to feel better.
  • Do not use antibiotics that were prescribed for a different illness or for someone else. You may delay correct treatment and become sicker.
  • Protect yourself from illnesses. Keep your hands clean by washing them well with soap and clean, running water.
  • Get a flu vaccine and other vaccines when you need them.
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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: March 10, 2013
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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