Using Antibiotics Appropriately

Antibiotics have revolutionized the practice of medicine since penicillin use became widespread in the 1940s. However, bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics have become a significant problem in recent years. Although antibiotics are a common type of medication used to fight infections, they must be used appropriately in order to make sure that they remain effective.

What is “antibiotic resistance”?

Drug-resistant infections (a.k.a. antibiotic resistance) occur when bacteria are able to counteract antibiotics and survive despite there being a sufficient amount of medication in the body to fight the infection. This means that the antibiotic may no longer work to treat the infection. It’s a common misconception that it’s the person who is resistant to antibiotics, when in fact it’s actually the bacteria that are resistant.

Why is it important to conserve antibiotics?

Resistant bacterial infections tend to be more severe, illness can last longer, and costs to the healthcare system are higher. Treatment options for drug-resistant infections are often limited, so antibiotics that are given by injection or that have more severe side effects may need to be used. Even everyday problems like cuts and scratches or routine operations like C-sections and hip replacements could become deadly if drug-resistant infections occur.

How do I know when an antibiotic will help?

Antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses. Many infections are caused by a virus and will often clear up on their own. Using antibiotics to treat an infection caused by a virus will not work, and can lead to more drug-resistant bacteria. Listed below are some illnesses that antibiotics likely will NOT help: 

  • The flu (influenza) 
  • Common cold/runny nose 
  • Chest cold (bronchitis) in most healthy people

In some other cases, your doctor might choose to “wait and see” if the infection improves before giving you antibiotics. For example, ear infections in children and sinus infections are often caused by viruses and can get better over a few days without antibiotics. Speak to your doctor about the best course of action for your infection. If you have a cold or flu, ask your pharmacist about the options available for relieving your symptoms.

What are the downsides to using antibiotics when I don’t need them?

Although they may be necessary for certain infections, antibiotics have their drawbacks. Using antibiotics “just to be safe” can sometimes be unsafe; it contributes to antibiotic resistance and can cause unnecessary complications such as: 

  • Allergic reactions 
  • Side effects 
  • Killing off or altering the normal “good bacteria” in your body, which can result in diarrhea or other infections, such as vaginal or urinary tract infections 
  • Potential interactions with your other medications

How can I help prevent antibiotic resistance? 

  • Prevention is key - do what you can to avoid getting sick
    • Wash your hands regularly
    • Make sure your vaccinations are up to date, including your yearly flu shot – check to see if it’s available at your local pharmacy!
    • Get enough rest and eat well.
  • Be antibiotic-savvy; know that not all infections will need an antibiotic to treat it. 
  • Do not share antibiotics with others. 
  • Take prescribed antibiotics according to directions 
    • Skipping doses may cause the amount of antibiotics in the body to drop below effective levels 
    • Ask your pharmacist what to do if you’ve forgotten to take a dose of antibiotics. 
  • Do not stop taking your antibiotics partway through your treatment course, even if you feel better (unless told to do so by your healthcare provider) 
    • Any bacteria not killed by the antibiotic could develop resistance and cause a new infection that will be difficult to treat. 
  • Return any unused antibiotics to the pharmacy – don’t save them for next time 
    • Not all antibiotics are created equal; an antibiotic that treated strep throat may not kill the bacteria causing a urinary tract infection. Your doctor needs to assess you to decide which antibiotic will treat your infection. 
  • Inform your healthcare providers about any drug allergies that you have and the details of the reaction you experienced 
    • A severe allergy would limit antibiotic treatment choices, but mild intolerances such as stomach upset may not rule out the antibiotic for you.
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