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Antibiotics: When They Can and Can’t Help

Last Updated April 2022 | This article was created by familydoctor.org editorial staff and reviewed by Kyle Bradford Jones, MD, FAAFP

Antibiotics are medicines prescribed by your doctor. They treat infections. Don’t misuse antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance means that bacteria in your body becomes resistant to antibiotics over time. This means that antibiotics will not be able to kill the bacteria or the infection caused by them.

Path to improved well being

Antibiotics can only treat bacterial infections. This includes strep throat and urinary infections. Antibiotics cannot treat viruses. This includes colds, the flu, or mono (mononucleosis).  Sometimes doctors prescribe an antibiotic to prevent an infection. Antibiotics are also used to treat some illnesses caused by parasites.

Tips to reduce antibiotic resistance:

  • 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 the medicine as prescribed; 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 help keep you healthy. It can reduce the need for antibiotics.

Things to consider

Antibiotics are sometimes used too much or incorrectly. Antibiotic resistance happens when bacteria are repeatedly exposed to the same medicine. This changes the bacteria, making it harder for the medicine to work.

It also can happen when bacteria are left in your body. They 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 could 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 improper use of antibiotics as a risk to personal and public health. Ear and sinus infections are usually caused by viruses. Antibiotics cannot treat viruses.


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?
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