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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. Over time these bacteria
change (mutate) and become harder to kill. 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
cost more. A stronger antibiotic may have more side effects than the first
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 harmful side effects. Common side effects include:
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.
In rare cases, antibiotics can cause a dangerous
allergic reaction that requires emergency care.
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, call your doctor to ask if there is another antibiotic
that will work as well but not cause these effects. Or ask your doctor if you
need treatment to deal with the side effects. Some minor side effects are hard
to avoid, but if they are more severe, discuss them with your doctor.
The American College of Physicians (ACP) is
a national organization of internists. Doctors of internal medicine focus on
adult medicine and have had special study and training focusing on the
prevention and treatment of adult diseases. The ACP provides information for
patients and families on the organization's website, including information on
diseases and conditions, end-of-life care, women's issues, and immunizations.
The site also offers video news stories, health tips, special reports, and a
link to the ACP diabetes webpage.
The Get Smart Web site at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides information for both consumers and health professionals on the appropriate use of antibiotics. The website explains the dangers of inappropriate use of antibiotics and gives tips on actions people can take to feel better if they have an infection that cannot be helped by antibiotics. Some materials are available in English and in Spanish.
This website is sponsored by the Nemours Foundation. It
has a wide range of information about children's health—from allergies and
diseases to normal growth and development (birth to adolescence). This website
offers separate areas for kids, teens, and parents, each providing
age-appropriate information that the child or parent can understand. You can
sign up to get weekly emails about your area of interest.
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious
Diseases conducts research and provides consumer information on infectious and
Other Works ConsultedCenters 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.Steinman MA, et al. (2003). Changing use of antibiotics in community-based outpatient practice, 1991–1999. Annals of Internal Medicine, 138(7): 525–534.
March 14, 2011
E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine & Theresa O'Young, PharmD - Clinical Pharmacy
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