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Should I take antibiotics?

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When to take antibioticsBenefitsRisk factorsAvoiding antibiotic resistanceAntibiotics typesSummary
Antibiotics are strong medications that a doctor may prescribe if you have a bacterial infection. It is important to take them as instructed to ensure the medication can clear the infection.
Medically reviewed by Philip Ngo, PharmD
Written by D. M. Pollock
Updated on

Antibiotics work by killing the bacteria or suspending the growth that causes disease. This stops the bacterial levels in your body from getting too high and causing severe illness.

They can’t treat viral infections such as the common cold or flu.

Antibiotics take effect in a few different ways, such as:

  • attacking and breaking the cell walls of bacteria
  • stopping the bacteria from being able to produce proteins (building blocks of bacteria)
  • preventing the bacteria from replicating and growing in numbers

It’s important to finish a course of antibiotics and only to take them if you have been given a prescription. This is because taking them unnecessarily or not taking enough to kill all the bacteria in your system can lead to antibiotic resistance.

This is where the antibiotics kill the sensitive bacteria, but those able to survive become resistant to the medication.

When should you take antibiotics?

Person sitting with their legs crossed, holding a glass of water and 2 pills, to depict the question: should I take antibiotics?
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By taking antibiotics as a doctor intends, you will get the most effective treatment out of your prescription, but also protect yourself from resistant bacteria that cause serious illness.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you should only take antibiotics in the following ways:

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Take them only if you need them

Antibiotics only work to kill bacterial infections, not viral ones. You should only take antibiotics for symptoms caused by bacteria, such as:

A healthcare professional may suggest waiting a few days before starting antibiotic treatment in case the body fights off the infection by itself. This is also known as waitful watching.

Bacterial conditions that the body may fight off by itself include:

  • most sinus infections
  • most oral infections
  • most ear infections

Take them only as a doctor prescribes

If a doctor determines that you need antibiotics to help you recover from a condition, it’s important that you take them exactly as they instruct you.

This includes:

  • not sharing your prescription with others
  • finishing the medication, even after your symptoms disappear
  • not taking antibiotics prescribed for others, as they may not be specific for the infection you have

Benefits of antibiotics

Antibiotics are naturally occurring substances that allow diseases that were once fatal to be easily treated. They are important medications that save thousands of lives a year.

If a doctor prescribes them to you, it’s important to ensure you take them as you should.

Most antibiotics take a few days to have an effect and 7 days to treat an infection.

Risks of antibiotics

Antibiotics can come with a range of side effects. In most instances, they are mild, but you may experience severe side effects, in which case it is a good idea to speak with a healthcare professional.

According to the CDC, severe side effects can include:

One of the most notable effects of antibiotic use is antibiotic-induced diarrhea, which can result from the bacterium Clostridioides difficile (C. diff). Antibiotic use is the primary risk factor for C. diff infection and may cause you to need different antibiotics to treat this infection.

While any gastrointestinal symptoms should go away as soon as you finish your treatment, if you notice stomach cramping or blood in your stool, you should speak with a healthcare professional.

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How can you avoid antibiotic resistance?

Antibiotics are less useful than they once were. This is due to antibiotic resistance.

This happens when a type of bacteria can no longer be managed with antibiotics. This means there is no effective treatment for the disease they cause.

When you take a course of antibiotics, the sensitive bacteria are destroyed. But if you don’t finish the course, you leave behind those bacteria that are more resilient to the medications. These bacteria then replicate, creating a resistant population.

Two key ways in which you can prevent antibiotic resistance include:

  • Avoiding misuse of antibiotics: Only take them when you need to. Many infections resolve by themselves or with over-the-counter medications.
  • Taking them for the whole course: Make sure to finish your treatment course, even if your symptoms disappear.

Types of antibiotics

Different kinds of antibiotics each target a specific type of bacteria. A doctor will prescribe the type of antibiotic that is best for you.

Different types of antibiotics can include:

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Antibiotics are essential medications that help treat infections that previously would have been fatal. Still, certain types of bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics, which means that the diseases they cause are becoming harder to treat.

You can avoid and help prevent antibiotic resistance by always taking the medications as a prescribing doctor instructs and only taking them if absolutely necessary.

If you are unsure, you can speak with a doctor about whether your symptoms will go away with rest and over-the-counter medications, or if you need antibiotic treatment.

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