What are antibiotics and what are they used for?

Antibiotics are strong, lifesaving medications used to treat bacterial infections.  Antibiotics do not work against viruses and should only be used when needed and as directed by your healthcare provider.

Why are antibiotics considered to be dangerous?

Antibiotics can be dangerous. While they can cure a bacterial infection, they may also cause serious side effects. In addition, overuse of antibiotics can cause the development of antibiotic resistance. It is important that antibiotics be taken only when needed and exactly as prescribed.

What are the possible side effects of antibiotics?

Common side effects of antibiotics include: 

  • skin rash
  • nausea
  • diarrhea 
  • yeast infection

More serious side effects include: 

  • severe life-threatening allergic reactions
  • Clostridiodes difficile infection (C diff) – one of the most common hospital-acquired infections which causes severe diarrhea and could lead to death.

What is antibiotic resistant?

Antibiotic resistance means bacteria no longer respond to the drugs designed to kill them. This can make future infections harder to treat as antibiotics might not work. Using antibiotics anytime can cause antibiotic resistance.

What is a superbug?

Superbugs are strains of bacteria that are resistant to several types of antibiotics. Overuse of antibiotics can cause these superbugs to emerge. Superbugs can spread to others, particularly in hospital settings, and can be difficult to treat. They can also increase your risk of dying when infected with them because they no longer respond to the medications they once did.

Why can't I get antibiotics for things I did in the past, like a urinary tract infection (UTI)? 

You can still get an antibiotic, if indicated and prescribed by your medical provider. In the case of a UTI, it is important to use antibiotics only when symptoms are present. A urine culture may find bacteria, but if you do not have any symptoms of an infection, most of the time you do not require antibiotics. The medical community has become more aware of the risk of antimicrobial resistance caused by the overuse of antibiotics. As a result, antibiotics will only be prescribed when an infection is present.

What can patients expect when they have a bacterial infection?

Healthcare providers are committed to improving the use of antibiotics and will only prescribe antibiotics when they are needed. If your healthcare provider believes you have a viral infection or that your symptoms may resolve on their own, he/she may choose to wait before prescribing an antibiotic. 

Appropriate antibiotic prescribing practices also include: 

  • prescribing the shortest effective course of antibiotics for the infection
  • limiting the use of broader spectrum antibiotics to treat simple infections
  • avoiding treatment of asymptomatic bacteriuria
  • limiting the use of prolonged antibiotics to prevent urinary tract infections.

Improving the way healthcare professionals prescribe antibiotics and the way we take them helps to keep us healthy now, fight antibiotic resistance, and ensure that these life-saving drugs will be available for future generations. 

If you have questions about antibiotic use, talk with your primary care provider

Francine Touzard-Romo, MD

Dr. Francine Touzard-Romo is an infectious diseases specialist at Newport Hospital.