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When should (and shouldn't) antibiotics be taken?

October 11, 2016


Dr. Stephen Flack, WellSpan Family Medicine

Dr. Stephen Flack, WellSpan Family Medicine

When is it appropriate to take an antibiotic if you get sick? Your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic if his or her diagnosis is that you have a bacterial infection such as strep throat, an ear infection or pneumonia, for example. (Antibiotics are not effective in treating viral infections like colds, flus or diarrhea.)

"Many people have an expectation that because they had been previously prescribed an antibiotic for an illness like bronchitis, they will need it again if they believe they have the same issue later on," says WellSpan Health family medical physician Dr. Stephen Flack.

The reality is the illness you have may not necessarily be related to a bacterial infection. "For example," says Dr. Flack, "you could have sinusitis [inflammation of nasal sinuses] for 10 days, but it may actually be related to a viral problem, not a bacterial issue. We would not want to use antibiotics in a case like that."

Honing in and targeting

If your doctor does prescribe an antibiotic for you, he or she will work to choose a medicine that best suits your individual treatment needs. "Our bodies contain good bacteria as well as bad," Dr. Flack explains. "Doctors try to choose the antibiotic that would treat only the bacteria that is making you sick, versus broadspectrum antibiotics that treat all possible bacteria [good bacteria as well as bad]."

Take only if necessary

Dr. Flack says that you should only take an antibiotic if it's absolutely necessary. Why? Overuse of antibiotics over time can do your body more harm than good.

"The more antibiotics you take," explains Dr. Flack, "the more risk you may have for 'super-bug' treatmentresistant bacteria, which are not able to be treated by certain common antibiotics." Essentially, these "superbugs" are no longer sensitive to the same antibiotics that they used to be. "So you wouldn't be able to use the same antibiotic that you had previously used," Dr. Flack explains. "That's a problem because, at present, there are not enough new antibiotics being developed. So if you use too many of the ones that are available now and bacteria becomes resistant to those, it becomes harder to effectively treat an illness."

Dr. Flack also says to be particularly mindful when children or elderly people are prescribed antibiotics.

"Kids and older people are at higher risk for developing side effects, like diarrhea, from antibiotics," he states. "If you take a number of antibiotics when you're younger, you're at higher risk later on in life for resistant bacteria. So it's important for doctors and parents alike to keep track of the type and amount of antibiotics a child may be prescribed."