Guest Opinion | Doctor is In: How to properly take antibiotics

Antibiotics are powerful medications that treat bacterial infections, but can be rendered useless/harmful if they are not taken appropriately.


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Young woman taking a pill

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 2.8 million infections are caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the U.S. every year. Antibiotic resistance happens when bacteria navigate around the drugs that were intended to kill them.

In essence, this means that the bacteria are not killed and continue to grow. These resistant strains of bacteria can emerge due to several factors such as taking an antibiotic for viral infections and not taking a full course of an antibiotic, among many other reasons. This article is going to provide a broad overview about what antibiotics are and why they should be taken as prescribed.

What are antibiotics used for?

Antibiotics are medications that fight bacterial infections by killing the bacteria and/or making it difficult for the bacteria to multiply. There are different classes of antibiotics based on what types of bacteria are causing the infection. Importantly, antibiotics will not treat any viral infections including: the common cold, flu, bronchitis, and stomach flu.

If you feel better, you shouldn’t need any more medicine, right? Not so fast…

While it is certainly tempting to stop taking antibiotics as soon as you feel better, the full treatment is necessary to stop/kill the bacteria. Even if you are feeling better after taking antibiotics for a few days, there could be bacteria that have not been killed off by the antibiotics.

Taking a partial course of an antibiotic can result in the need to resume treatment later or even pursue more expensive treatments. This can also promote antibiotic resistance among disease-causing bacteria.

Why shouldn’t I take antibiotics for a viral infection?

According to the CDC, 33 to 50 percent of antibiotics are used/prescribed inappropriately. Much of this is due to antibiotics that are being used for viral infections. If you take an antibiotic when you have a viral infection, the antibiotic attacks bacteria in your body (see our article on beneficial gut bacteria) that are either beneficial or not causing disease. This ill-advised “treatment” can promote antibiotic-resistant properties and can replace beneficial bacteria with harmful bacteria.

Why is antibiotic resistance a concern?

According to the Infectious Disease Society of America, antibiotic resistant infections cost the U.S. healthcare system between $21 to $34 billion each year. Antibiotic-resistant infections also produce over 8 million additional hospital stays annually. Despite these alarming statistics, there are steps that you can take to reduce the inappropriate prescription of antibiotics.

  1. Take the full course of antibiotics, as prescribed, even after symptoms have resolved
  2. Avoid asking your clinician for antibiotics. Instead, ask their opinion on how to best treat your condition
  3. Do not take old or expired antibiotics
  4. Practice good hygiene to avoid contracting a bacterial infection. Wash your hands, cook foods thoroughly, and avoid expired foods

It is best to take your antibiotics as prescribed by your healthcare provider. As always, if you have any questions/concerns about the use of antibiotics for treating an infection talk to your local pharmacist and/or provider.

– Spencer Heggen, second-year pharmacy student, Class of 2024

Riley Mohr, fourth-year pharmacy student, Class of 2022

Vijayvardhan Kamalumpundi, second-year medical student, Class of 2024

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