Home > Patients & Visitors > Health Library > Using Antibiotics Wisely
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.
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.
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
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:
Antibiotics also can cause Clostridium difficile colitis (also called C. difficile
colitis), a swelling and irritation of the
large intestine, or colon. 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.
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:
Questions you can ask your doctor include:
If you need to take antibiotics, always tell your doctor or
pharmacist about other medicines or dietary supplements you are taking. Be sure
to talk about any special diet you may be following, any food or drug allergies
you may have, and any health problems you have. And make sure your doctor
knows if you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant.
When your doctor prescribes an antibiotic:
Antibiotics generally are safe. But it is important to watch for
side effects. Common side effects include nausea, diarrhea, and stomach pain.
In women, antibiotics can lead to vaginal yeast infections. In rare cases, antibiotics can cause a dangerous allergic
reaction that requires emergency care.
If the antibiotic causes side effects
that really bother you, ask your doctor if treatment can help you deal with the side effects. Some minor side effects are hard
to avoid, but if they are more severe, discuss them with your doctor. Or ask your doctor if another antibiotic
will work as well but not cause these effects.
Other Works Consulted
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2009). Antibiotic resistance questions and answers. Available online: http://www.cdc.gov/getsmart/antibiotic-use/antibiotic-resistance-faqs.html.
Pottinger PS, Dellit TH (2009). Antimicrobial therapy. In EG Nabel, ed., ACP Medicine, section 7, chap. 14. Hamilton, ON: BC Decker.
ByHealthwise StaffPrimary Medical ReviewerE. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal MedicineSpecialist Medical ReviewerTheresa O'Young, PharmD - Clinical Pharmacy
Current as ofMay 24, 2016
Current as of:
May 24, 2016
E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine & Theresa O'Young, PharmD - Clinical Pharmacy
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2016 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.
Our interactive Decision Points guide you through making key health decisions by combining medical information with your personal information.
You'll find Decision Points to help you answer questions about:
Get started learning more about your health!
Our Interactive Tools can help you make smart decisions for a healthier life. You'll find personal calculators and tools for health and fitness, lifestyle checkups and pregnancy.
Feeling under the weather?
Use our interactive symptom checker to evaluate your symptoms and determine appropriate action or treatment.