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Information About Antibiotic Use

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Oct 31, 2022.

How do healthcare providers decide if I need antibiotics?

Antibiotics are used to fight infections that are caused by bacteria. Your healthcare provider will decide if your illness is caused by bacteria. This decision is based on an exam, your symptoms, or tests that check for bacteria. If your healthcare provider decides your infection is caused by bacteria, you may be given an antibiotic. Sometimes your healthcare provider may wait to prescribe antibiotics. This is called watchful waiting. Watchful waiting gives your immune system time to fight the infection without antibiotics. This can help prevent antibiotic resistance.

What do I need to know about antibiotic resistance?

  • Antibiotics do not always kill all the bacteria causing an infection. Bacteria that survive will be stronger and may become resistant to antibiotics. This means that antibiotics will not work to kill these stronger bacteria like they should. Certain infections can then develop, called antibiotic-resistant infections. An example of an antibiotic-resistant infection is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
  • Antibiotic resistance can happen when antibiotics are overused or not taken correctly. The following are examples of how antibiotics are overused or not used correctly:
    • You take an antibiotic for a viral infection.
    • You take an antibiotic instead of letting your body fight the infection on its own.
    • You do not finish your antibiotic prescription as directed.
  • Antibiotic resistance makes infections hard to treat. If you get an infection that is resistant to antibiotics, you may become very sick. You may spread the infection to others. You will need stronger medicine to treat the infection. Your illness may become life-threatening.

What else do I need to know about antibiotics?

  • Antibiotics do not work for viral infections. A virus cannot be killed by antibiotics. You can treat signs and symptoms, such as a cough or fever, until the infection clears.
  • Antibiotics will not cure a bacterial infection or make you feel better sooner. They will kill the bacteria, but it will still take time for the infection to clear. It may take several days for you to feel better. You may instead feel better in a few days. Take all of the antibiotics you were prescribed, even if you think they are not helping or you start to feel better sooner.
  • Antibiotics will not prevent the spread of infection. Your healthcare provider will tell you when you are no longer contagious after you start taking antibiotics. This will depend on the kind of bacteria causing your infection.
  • Antibiotics may cause side effects. Tell your healthcare provider if you have had side effects from other medicines. Also tell your provider if you are allergic to any medicines. Antibiotics commonly cause side effects such as an upset stomach, a rash, and diarrhea. Your provider can help you manage side effects.
  • Antibiotics increase your risk for Clostridium difficile (C. diff). Antibiotics remove the bacteria causing infection in your body, but they also remove some good bacteria. C. diff bacteria can grow while you are taking antibiotics. The following can help you manage C. diff infections:
    • The risk for C. diff diarrhea can last a few weeks, even after you have stopped taking antibiotics. Tell your healthcare provider if you have diarrhea during or after antibiotic treatment.
    • Your provider may recommend probiotics (good bacteria). They can help protect you from harmful bacteria and may help prevent more infections. You may be able to eat yogurt or other foods high in probiotics. Your provider may instead recommend a pill or liquid form.

Which conditions are treated with antibiotics?

The following conditions are often caused by bacteria and treated with antibiotics:

  • Strep throat
  • Whooping cough
  • A urinary tract infection (UTI)

Which conditions may be treated with antibiotics?

Some conditions can be caused by bacteria or a virus. Your healthcare provider may or may not treat the following conditions with antibiotics:

  • A sinus infection
  • An ear infection
  • Bronchitis
  • Pneumonia

Which conditions are not treated with antibiotics?

Antibiotics will not treat infections caused by a virus. The following conditions are not treated with antibiotics:

  • Colds
  • Most coughs
  • Flu
  • A sore throat other than strep throat
  • Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)

What should I ask my healthcare provider?

  • Do I need an antibiotic to treat my infection?
  • Is watchful waiting right for me?
  • What is the best antibiotic to treat my infection if I do need one?
  • What are the side effects of the antibiotic I need to take?
  • How long do I need to take the antibiotic?

What can I do to help prevent antibiotic resistance?

  • Take your antibiotic as directed. Do not skip a dose of your antibiotic. Do not stop taking your antibiotic, even if you feel better. Finish the entire course of your antibiotic unless your healthcare provider tells you to stop.
  • Get rid of any antibiotics you did not use. Ask your healthcare provider or pharmacist how to get rid of unused antibiotics. Do not share your antibiotic with another person. Do not take a leftover antibiotic for another illness without talking to your healthcare provider.
  • Ask about vaccines you may need. Vaccines can help prevent infections that antibiotics treat. Get a flu vaccine as soon as recommended each year, usually in September or October. Ask about other vaccines you may need, such as vaccines to prevent pneumonia, COVID-19, or meningitis.
  • Do not ask your healthcare provider to prescribe antibiotics. Your provider can recommend other treatments based on your illness. An example includes over-the-counter medicines such as acetaminophen or NSAIDs.
  • Wash your hands often to prevent the spread of infection. Use soap and running water. You can use hand sanitizer that contains alcohol when soap and water are not available.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • You have skin blisters or burning.
  • You have trouble breathing, swelling in your mouth or throat, or a rash that spreads over your body.
  • You have diarrhea that contains blood.
  • You have severe stomach cramps.
  • You have sores or white patches in your mouth.

When should I call my doctor?

  • You have mild to moderate nausea, an upset stomach, or diarrhea.
  • You have a mild rash or other skin problems.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

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