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Antibiotics 101

“I need an antibiotic.”

You’ve probably heard someone say that when they’re sick, but is an antibiotic really what we need when we’re under the weather? The answer is: sometimes. Let’s explore.

What are antibiotics?

Antibiotics are medications that kill bacteria, which are tiny, single-celled organisms.

  • Some bacteria are “good,” helping in the digestion of food and absorbing vitamins in the body. Good bacteria are also what help in the creation of foods such as yogurt and cheese.
  • Infectious bacteria, however, reproduce quickly and make you sick.

Common bacterial infections include:

  • Strep throat
  • Urinary tract infections (UTI)
  • Pneumonia
  • Skin infections

Antibiotics treat these infections, stop diseases from spreading and reduce their complications. The most common antibiotics are penicillin and amoxicillin.

What do antibiotics not work for?

Antibiotics will not help if you have a fungal infection (yeast infection, athlete’s foot) or a virus. Viruses are organisms that are even smaller than bacteria and can only multiply inside a living host (person, plant, animal). When a virus enters your body, it tells your bodies’ cells to stop what they’re doing and replicate the virus instead of continuing with their normal functions. That makes you sick.

Common viral infections include:

  • Coughs and colds
  • Influenza
  • Bronchitis
  • Chickenpox

When you have a virus, the best thing to do is treat the symptoms (fever, runny nose, sore throat, etc.) until it passes, which can take 7-10 days. When someone is misdiagnosed and prescribed an antibiotic for a cold, for example, they may falsely attribute feeling better to the antibiotic when the infection would have simply run its course in time anyway.

Do antibiotics treat sinus infections?

Only if they are bacterial. A simple runny nose is not a sinus infection, so antibiotics won’t help. What they will treat is bacterial sinusitis, an infection that may occur after you’ve had a virus, or after your sinuses are inflamed for other reasons. It’s difficult to tell the difference between viral and bacterial sinusitis, but doctors typically can.

Are there any side effects to antibiotics?

Yes. Side effects include:

  • Interactions with other medications
  • Yeast infections
  • Diarrhea and C. difficile, a severe form of diarrhea that can be life-threatening

People who have heart conditions have to be especially careful as interactions between their medications and certain antibiotics such as Levaquin, Cipro and azithromycin (aka a “Z-Pack”) can be very dangerous.

Are there dangers of taking antibiotics too often?

Overuse of antibiotics can cause antibiotic resistance, which causes problems:

  1. The more often you take antibiotics, the less effective they will become.
  2. If you take them when you don’t need them and then you get an infection you do need them to treat, they won’t work.
  3. On a large scale, unnecessary use of antibiotics can accidentally create antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which cause 23,000 deaths each year in the U.S.

According to the CDC, up to half of antibiotic use in humans is unnecessary or inappropriate

What mistakes do people make when taking antibiotics?

1. They don’t finish them, or they try to “save them for later.”

If you take an antibiotic only until you feel better, you may “knock down” an infection but not eliminate it, which in turn may promote growth of stronger bacteria. Always finish any antibiotic you are prescribed.

2. They take leftover antibiotics or other people’s prescriptions.

The antibiotics might be old and ineffective, or they might not be the right type to kill the type of bacteria you have.

When is it time to see a doctor?

If you are still getting worse after a week of treating your symptoms, you should seek medical treatment.

Medical information provided by Dr. Suzanne Corrington, a medical director for BlueCross.

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville). As Content Producer/Writer at bohan Advertising, she is a writer, editor and social media strategist.

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