FRANKLIN, Tenn.—Antibiotics are life-saving medications. They can help us recover from some major sicknesses. However, they are not a “cure-all” and, sometimes, taking them can potentially make you sicker. That’s why healthcare professionals say everyone needs be aware of these basic facts.
NOT ALL INFECTIONS NEED ANTIBIOTICS
Antibiotics only attack bacterial infections, like whooping cough and strep throat. Many common ailments, such as the cold, flu, or bronchitis, are actually caused by viruses and not bacteria. Shaefer Spires, M.D., assistant professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University and the hospital epidemiologist at Williamson Medical Center, says taking antibiotics for those kinds of infections will do you no good.
“If you have a viral upper respiratory tract illness, antibiotics won’t make you get better faster, and they won’t prevent a secondary bacterial infection,” he says.
“They can only expose you to the adverse effects of antibiotics.”
YOU NEED A HEALTHY BALANCE OF BACTERIA
While the primary job of an antibiotic is to kill bacteria, it should be noted that not all bacteria are bad. The human body is filled with many kinds that help us live day-to-day.
Spires says, “There needs to be a healthy balance of bacteria for the human body to function. One dose of antibiotic can disturb that balance.”
An example, according to Spires, is found on our skin. We have bacteria there that work constantly to ward off infections. Without them, we are opened up to issues like staph infections and yeast overgrowth.
Montgomery Williams, PharmD, Clinical Pharmacist at Williamson Medical Center and Chair of the facility’s Antimicrobial Stewardship Committee, adds, “There are also many different types of healthy bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract that prevent the bad kind from causing problems. As antibiotics target bacteria in general, inappropriate use of them can kill off the healthy kind.”
And in the gastrointestinal tract, the consequences of this can be deadly. C. difficile is a serious infection that can occur when bad bacteria outnumber the good kind. If not recognized and treated quickly, C. difficile has the potential to be fatal.
NEVER TAKE LEFTOVER ANTIBIOTICS
A surplus of antibiotics is not a good thing. There may be times when you have some left over from a prescription. If that happens, Spires says, you should throw the remainder away. This is because antibiotics are prescribed for specific conditions, at specific times. Taking a leftover medication for a future illness, even if the symptoms seem similar, is dangerous.
The same goes for antibiotics that were prescribed to a friend or family member. Never take a drug that was meant for someone else under any circumstance.
Spires says the reason for that is, “You may have something completely different causing your infection, which could then become systemic—spreading to other parts of the body—if not treated correctly.”
ADVERSE EFFECT: ANTIBIOTIC RESISTANCE
Another adverse effect to using these drugs is antibiotic resistance. Taking them when you don’t need them could not only kill the healthy bacteria, but also strengthen the bad. In some cases, it can get to the point where an infection develops that regular antibiotics cannot control.
Antibiotic-resistant infections can be hard to treat and, in the worst-case scenario, may even lead to death.
HEALTHCARE PROFESSIONALS HOLD THE KEY
As with many health issues, your primary care provider should be your go-to when it comes to knowing the proper use of antibiotics.
Spires says, “If you’re sick and seeing a doctor, instead of asking them for antibiotics ask them what the best treatment could be.”
If the provider decides that antibiotics are, in fact, the best option, Spires says there are slew of follow-up questions you should ask.
“How long am I supposed to take it? Can I stop taking it if I feel better? What are some side-effects I may encounter? How do I know that it is working? These will help keep you informed,” he assures.
Williams adds that pharmacists can also be a resource for this information.
“Most local pharmacies have a consultation window, where you can ask the pharmacist on staff about a medication’s proper use and its potential side effects,” she says.
BE EDUCATED, NOT AFRAID
While these points may be alarming to some, Spires and Williams stress that people should not be afraid of antibiotics. They are, after all, life-saving drugs. Like all medication, though, caution must be taken to make sure they work as they are supposed to, and not cause adverse issues.
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