Antibiotics: When They Can and Can’t Help

Antibiotics are medicines prescribed by your doctor to treat infections. However, it’s important not to overuse antibiotics. This can lead to antibiotic resistance. When this happens, the infection you are trying to treat becomes stronger than the medicine. The medicine will not be able to help you.

Path to improved wellness

Antibiotics can only treat bacterial infections. This includes strep throat and urinary infections. They will not treat viruses, such as colds, the flu, or mono (mononucleosis). Sometimes your doctor will prescribe an antibiotic to prevent an infection. Antibiotics also are prescribed to treat illnesses causes by parasites and some types of fungus. Instead of asking your doctor for an antibiotic for a virus, ask what you can do to feel better and ease your symptoms while your body fights a viral infection.

When you are given an antibiotic, 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. You may become sick again, and your body may resist future antibiotic treatment.

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.

Things to consider

Antibiotics are used a lot. Sometimes they are used inappropriately. Because of this, antibiotic resistance is a common problem. It occurs when bacteria in your body change. This makes it difficult for the antibiotics to fight the bacteria. This can happen when bacteria are repeatedly exposed to the same antibiotics. Or, it can happen when bacteria are left in your body. These bacteria multiply and become strong enough to resist the antibiotic in the future. This causes your infection to last longer or get worse. You might have to make several visits to your doctor’s office. You might have to take different medicines. You may have to go to a hospital to get stronger antibiotics given intravenously (through an IV needle into your vein).

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.

You increase the chance that you will one day get an illness that can’t be treated by antibiotics each time you take antibiotics when you don’t need them or when you don’t finish all of your medicine.

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 will 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?


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Antibiotic Resistance

U.S. National Library of Medicine, Antibiotic Resistance