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Antibiotics: Use as Directed

March 14, 2013
A large percentage of Americans have taken antibiotics at some point during their lives. They are powerful medicines that physicians may prescribe to treat an infection caused by bacteria. Although some think of them as cure-alls, antibiotics do not work against illnesses that are caused by a virus, like common colds or the flu. Those who take antibiotics to treat a viral infection should think again—they may do more harm than good if not used properly.

Know the Risks

“Antibiotic use certainly has potential risks such as allergic reactions or side effects including nausea or diarrhea,” says Gregory Small, MD, Primary Care Physician for GBMC at Texas Station. “There are also numerous types of antibiotics that treat many different kinds of bacteria. ”Those variables, paired with a person’s individual chemistry, make it nearly impossible to predict whether someone will experience side effects or how severely.

Antibiotics don’t distinguish between “bad,” illness-causing bacteria and the normal bacteria that live within the intestines. “Because they upset the balance between bad bacteria and the good types that our bodies need, they may allow some harmful types to grow out of control,” Dr. Small explains. “One increasingly common condition that may occur after antibiotic use is an inflammation of the large intestine or colon called Clostridium difficile colitis, or C. Diff. Symptoms include profuse watery diarrhea, abdominal pain and fever. If left untreated, it can become life-threatening.”

Taking antibiotics unnecessarily can also cause what’s known as breeding resistance. With repeated antibiotic exposure, bacteria become resistant to the drugs and continue to grow, ultimately making them more difficult to treat. Stronger medications are required, which often have more serious side effects and a higher cost.

What You Can Do

Dr. Small says the best thing people can do to stay healthy is maintain open communication with their primary care physicians. “Keeping your doctor informed of your symptoms enables him or her to provide better care,” he says.

Avoid the temptation to self-diagnose or self-medicate. Differentiating between a bacterial and a viral infection is something that only a physician is qualified to do. Plus, doctors take a number of factors into consideration before selecting an antibiotic for a specific patient. “Take antibiotics exactly as prescribed for you. Never take antibiotics that were prescribed for someone else, or those left over from a previous illness,” he cautions.

In the event that an illness is viral rather than bacterial, follow a physician’s instructions and be patient as doctors can recommend or prescribe products to give some relief from cold or flu symptoms, but time is the only cure. Take prevention seriously by getting an annual flu shot and practicing good hand hygiene to stop the spread of germs.

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