What are antibiotics?
Antibiotics are medicines that fight (or prevent) infections caused by bacteria, certain parasites and some types of fungus. Antibiotics cannot fight infections caused by viruses (which include most colds and the flu).
What is antibiotic resistance?
Because antibiotics are used a lot (and sometimes are used inappropriately) antibiotic resistance is becoming a common problem. It occurs when bacteria in your body change so that antibiotics don't work effectively to fight them anymore. This can happen when bacteria are repeatedly exposed to the same antibiotics or when bacteria are left in your body after you have been taking an antibiotic (such as when someone does not take the full course of their antibiotic medicine). These bacteria can multiply and become strong enough to resist the antibiotic in the future.
Why should I worry about antibiotic resistance?
If you take antibiotics that cannot fight the bacteria they are supposed to kill, your infection can last longer. Instead of getting better, your infection might get worse. You might have to make several visits to your doctor's office. You might have to take different medicines or go to a hospital to get stronger antibiotics given intravenously (through an IV needle into your vein).
At the same time, your family members or other people you come into contact with will be exposed to the resistant bacteria you have. Then these people might also develop infections that are hard to treat.
Every time you take antibiotics when you don't need them or you do not take all of the antibiotics recommended by your doctor, you increase the chance that you will someday get an illness that is caused by resistant bacteria.
When are antibiotics not needed?
Antibiotics are not needed for (and won't work against) viral infections such as a cold, the flu (influenza) or mono (mononucleosis).
You should not ask your doctor to give you or your children antibiotics for a viral illness. Instead, ask your doctor what you can do to feel better and ease your symptoms while your body fights the infection.
When is it okay to take antibiotics?
How should I take the antibiotics that my doctor prescribes?
Follow your doctor's directions carefully. Take all the antibiotic medicine that your doctor gives you. Don't save some of the medicine for the next time you're sick. If you skip even 1 or 2 doses, some bacteria might be left in your body and resist future antibiotic treatment.
What else can I do to reduce the risk of antibiotic resistance?
Wash your hands with soap and water before you eat and after you use the bathroom. Regular hand washing will help keep you healthy and reduce the need for antibiotics.
Ask your doctor if you have all the vaccinations you need to protect yourself from illness.
Antimicrobial Resistance: A Plan of Action for Community Practice by TM Hooten, M.D. and SB Levy, M.D. (American Family Physician March 15, 2001, http://www.aafp.org/afp/20010315/1087.html)
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff