What are Antibiotics (and Why Do We Need Them)?

You’ve probably taken an antibiotic at least once in your lifetime, whether it was to treat that urinary tract infection or an itchy skin infection. Before its discovery, many people died from minor, treatable bacterial infections. However, antibiotics’ availability over the century has made surgeries safer and increased life expectancy, and people can now survive what used to be potentially deadly infections. But what are antibiotics exactly?

Antibiotics have revolutionized medical practice by making previously (potentially) fatal illnesses treatable and enabling other medical advances. They are among the most commonly prescribed medications in modern medicine. So, in this article, let’s talk about what antibiotics are and how they work.

What are Antibiotics?

Antibiotics are medications that treat or prevent bacterial infections. Antibiotics destroy or inhibit the growth of bacteria by either killing the bacteria or preventing the bacteria from reproducing and growing into a disease. They help when your immune system cannot cope and fight off a bacterial infection on its own.

bacterial infection germs

You can take antibiotics in various ways:

  • Orally — through pills, capsules, or liquids.
  • Topically — by applying a cream or ointment on your skin, eye drops, and ear drops.
  • Through injection.

What Can Antibiotics Treat?

Doctors use antibiotics to treat bacterial infections. Each antibiotic only works for specific bacterial infections and cannot be interchanged from one disease to another.

In selecting the antibiotic treatment for an infection, doctors evaluate the type of bacteria causing the infection to give the correct treatment. For instance, if you have a throat infection, the doctor will determine the kind of bacteria causing the throat infection and administer the specific treatment. 

Antibiotics can treat bacterial infections such as:

  • Strep throat.
  • Whooping cough.
  • Urinary tract infections.
  • Skin infections.
  • Dental infections.
  • Bladder and kidney infections.

Antibiotics are sometimes given as a precaution to prevent infection. This is commonly known as prophylaxis and is sometimes given in the following situations:

  • If you have surgical procedures where there is a high risk of infection.
  • After a bite or wound.
  • During chemotherapy treatment or organ transplants.
  • If you have a medical condition that leaves you vulnerable to bacterial infection.

What Can’t Antibiotics Treat?

Taking antibiotics when not needed won’t help you and might result in adverse side effects.

Antibiotics are not effective against viruses. You should not take antibiotics if you have:

  • The flu.
  • A cold or runny nose.
  • A sore throat.
  • A chest cold, especially bronchitis.

Most viral infections don’t need medication since they are self-limiting. In other words, the immune system fights off the infection, and you will get better without needing antibiotics. 

In addition, antibiotics do not work in some bacterial infections. These include:

  • Some ear infections.
  • Many sinus infections.

The Possible Side Effects of Antibiotics

Just like any medicine, antibiotics can cause side effects. Their side effects may range from mild to severe. The most common side effects are:

  • Nausea.
  • Rash.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Yeast infections.
woman clutching stomach

Severe side effects include:

  • Allergic reactions.
  • C.diff infections.

You should also keep in mind that your body has both bad bacteria and good bacteria. And antibiotics can’t tell the difference. This means that this medicine will act on both. So, have a chat with your healthcare provider about how to reintroduce/encourage good bacteria after you’ve finished your course of antibiotics.

How Should You Take Them?

It’s important to correctly take the specific antibiotics for the infection you’re suffering from. You should visit a healthcare provider who will give you the correct diagnosis and instructions for taking your medication. After being prescribed the antibiotics, keep these things in mind:

  1. Take all the antibiotics as your doctor prescribes or follow the patient information leaflet with the medicine. You should take your medications fully and complete your treatment, even after you begin feeling well. This is crucial to your recovery. Stopping the treatment too soon or mid-course means that the bacteria are not eliminated, leading to the development of antibiotic-resistance bacteria. The antibiotic-resistant bacteria may grow in your body, which increases the chances of severe reinfection. 
  2. Follow the prescriptions to guide you on how many pills to take and how often. 
  3. Take antibiotics only meant for you. You should never borrow them from a friend or a relative.
  4. Refrain from taking old antibiotics for new infections since bacteria mutate with time.
  5. It’s important to ask your doctor how you should take the medication. Some antibiotics need to be taken with food in the stomach, while others need only water. Some antibiotics do not interact well with other medicines, contraceptive pills, and alcohol. 

What About Antibiotic Resistance?

Antibiotic resistance is when bacteria do not respond to antibiotics meant to kill them, making them difficult and sometimes impossible to treat. According to the CDC, more than two million people in the United States experience anti-microbial resistance yearly.

Bacteria resistance may happen due to the following reasons:

  • Antibiotic misuse, which occurs when a person has been prescribed the wrong antibiotic, an antibiotic for the wrong length of time, or when people do not take prescriptions as prescribed. 
  • Overuse of antibiotics.
  • Bacteria evolve to survive future antibiotics attacks. The more you use an antibiotic, the more the bacteria develop resistance, making the medicine less effective. 

Along with vaccines, antibiotics are one of the greatest inventions of modern medicine. They help us control illness, reduce hospitalizations, and save lives. If a healthcare provider prescribes antibiotics for you, be sure you take them exactly as directed so that they can do their job and keep you healthy!

If you found this article interesting, you might like reading more about antibiotics vs vaccines.

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Jonathan Baktari MD

Jonathan Baktari, MD brings over 20 years of clinical, administrative and entrepreneurial experience to lead the current e7 Health team. He has been a triple board-certified physician with specialties in internal medicine, pulmonary and critical care medicine. He has been the Medical Director of The Valley Health Systems, Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, Culinary Health Fund and currently is the CEO of two healthcare companies.
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