Antibiotics: When They Can and Can’t Help


Antibiotics are medicines prescribed by your doctor. They treat infections. Don’t overuse antibiotics. This leads to antibiotic resistance. This makes the infection stronger. The medicine will not be able to kill the infection.

Path to improved well being

Antibiotics can only treat bacterial infections. This includes strep throat and urinary infections. They will not treat viruses. This includes colds, the flu, or mono (mononucleosis).  Some doctors prescribe an antibiotic to prevent an infection. Some are prescribed to treat illnesses caused by parasites and some types of fungus.

Tips to reduce antibiotic resistance, include:

  • Don’t ask your doctor for an antibiotic for a virus. Ask what you can do to feel better and treat your symptoms.
  • Follow the daily dosing instructions. Take all of the medicine; don’t save any. This helps kill the infection completely.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water before you eat and after you use the bathroom. This will keep you healthy. It will reduce the need for antibiotics.

Things to consider

Antibiotics are used a lot. Sometimes they are used incorrectly. Antibiotic resistance is a common problem. It occurs when bacteria in your body change. This makes it difficult for the medicine to fight the bacteria. This happens when bacteria are repeatedly exposed to the same medicine. Or, it can happen when bacteria are left in your body. Bacteria will multiply and become stronger. One day you might get an illness that can’t be treated by antibiotics. You might have to take different medicines. You may have to go to a hospital to get intravenous antibiotics (through an IV needle into your vein).

Family members or other people you come into contact with will be exposed to the infection you have. Then these people might also develop infections that are hard to treat.

The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) recognizes inappropriate use of antibiotics as a risk to personal and public health. Ear and sinus infections are usually caused by viruses. Antibiotics cannot treat viruses. Doctors may prescribe antibiotics when symptoms last for 7 or more days or seem to get worse instead of better over time.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • How do I know whether my infection is from bacteria or a virus?
  • Can certain vaccinations protect me or my child from certain bacterial infections?
  • Is an allergy to an antibiotic a sign of antibiotic resistance?
  • Can my doctor refuse to give me an antibiotic if I ask for one?