Antibiotics can often work wonders, killing bad bacteria in your body and making you feel much better. However, it’s important to know that antibiotics are only appropriate for certain diseases, and if they’re used for other problems, they are not only ineffective but also potentially dangerous.
“Antibiotics are used for bacterial infections,” says Anthony Consolazio, MD, Lead Physician of UHS Walk-In Centers. “The most common of these are strep throat, urinary tract infections, pneumonia, ear infections and some sinus infections.”
Dr. Consolazio explains that in the past antibiotics were prescribed for a wider range of issues, and a perception that they can be used in many circumstances still exists among many patients. When antibiotics are prescribed for issues they don’t treat, such as viral infections like the common cold or the flu, Dr. Consolazio explains there are two main dangers.
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“One danger is to the person: The side effects of the medication can cause things like stomach upset or even severe diarrhea,” he says. “The second danger is the more antibiotics are used in general, the more bacteria become resistant to them, and the less effective they are for everyone.”
Because of this second danger of creating highly-resistant, tougher-to-kill bacteria, it is also important that you take the full regimen of antibiotics when you are prescribed them. Dr. Consolazio says that sometimes people will start feeling better after four or five days and stop taking their antibiotics because they feel they’re no longer necessary. This can be particularly troublesome because at that point the medicine has killed most of the bacteria and only the strongest bacteria still survives. That extra-strong bacteria can then multiply because it is no longer being fought with antibiotics.
Beyond taking the full dose and making sure you aren’t taking antibiotics for an issue that doesn’t require them, Dr. Consolazio also notes it’s important to talk to your doctor and consult the paperwork that comes with your medication to ensure you’re taking it safely.
“Directions and side effects vary by medication, so it’s important to ask your doctor if you have any questions,” he says. “For example, the antibiotic we use for Lyme disease causes increased sun sensitivity, and people who aren’t aware of that can get quite a sun burn if they aren’t careful.”
For additional information about antibiotics safety, visit cdc.gov.