Antibiotics are medicines that help people fight infections caused by bacteria. They work by killing bacteria that are in the body. These medicines come in many different forms, including tablets, ointments, and liquids that are given by injection either into the vein or the muscle.
Antibiotics can do a lot of good. For people with serious bacterial infections, antibiotics can save lives. But people use them far too often, even when they’re not needed. This is causing a very serious problem called antibiotic resistance.
Using antibiotics when they are not needed gives bacteria a chance to change, so that the antibiotics cannot hurt them later on. People who have infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria often have to be treated in the hospital with many different antibiotics. People can even die from these infections, because there is no antibiotic that will cure them.
Because of this problem, doctors are having a harder and harder time treating infections and there is increasing worry in the medical field that there will soon be infections that don’t respond to any antibiotics.
Antibiotics DO NOT work on infections caused by viruses, or fungal infections.
Some common bacterial infections that are treated with antibiotics include; some throat infections, pneumonia (an infection of the lungs), urinary tract infections, infected wounds and some infections caught through sex, such as gonorrhea and chlamydia.
Antibiotics are NOT helpful for the common cold, flu, many forms of sore throat because these are caused by a virus.
Antibiotics are NOT helpful for most cases of sinusitis, because sinusitis is usually caused by a virus. Sinusitis that starts out as a viral infection can turn into a bacterial infection, but that takes time. If you have had sinusitis symptoms for less than 10 days, one should not take antibiotics unless prescribed by their doctor.
Even though antibiotics don’t work on infections caused by viruses, people sometimes believe that they do. That’s because they took antibiotics for a viral infection before and then got better. The problem is that those people would have gotten better with or without an antibiotic. When they get better with the antibiotic, they think that’s what cured them, when in reality the antibiotic had nothing to do with it.
Other than resistance, there are many other reasons as to why one should not take antibiotics unless they absolutely need them.
Antibiotics cause side effects, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. They can even make it more likely that you will get a different kind of infection, such as yeast infection (common in women).
Allergies to antibiotics are common. You can develop an allergy to an antibiotic, even if you have not had a problem with it before. Some allergies are just unpleasant, causing rashes and itching. But some can be very serious and even life-threatening. It is better to avoid any risk of an allergy, if the antibiotic wouldn’t help you anyway.
Antibiotics should only be taken when a doctor prescribes them to you. You should not take antibiotics prescribed to someone else, and you should not take antibiotics that were prescribed to you for a previous illness. When prescribing an antibiotic, doctors carefully pick the right antibiotic for a particular infection and not all antibiotics work on all bacteria.
If you do have an infection caused by bacteria, your doctor might want to find out what that bacterium is, and which antibiotics can kill it. They do this by taking a “culture” of the bacteria and growing it in the lab. But it’s not possible to do a culture on someone who has already started an antibiotic. So if you start an antibiotic without input from a doctor, it will be impossible to know if you have taken the right one.
One can help to reduce the risk of developing resistance to these antibiotics by; not pressurizing their doctor or nurse for antibiotics when he or she does not think they need them.
If you are prescribed antibiotics, finish all of the medicine and take it exactly as directed. Never skip doses or stop taking the medicine without talking to your doctor and do not give antibiotics that were prescribed to you to anyone else.
It is also important to know that if an antibiotic did not work for you before, that does not mean it will never work for you. If you have used an antibiotic before and it did not work, tell your doctor. But keep in mind that the infection you had before might not have been caused by the same bacteria that you have now. The “best” antibiotic is the right one for the bacteria causing the infection, not for the person with the infection.
Dr. Ian Shyaka
Resident in Surgery, Rwanda Military Hospital,