Posted by Naomi Nessim, January 15, 2019 (last updated on November 20, 2020)
If you or your child has ever had an ear infection, strep throat, or bronchitis, you’re probably familiar with antibiotics. They are a commonly prescribed — and highly useful — form of medicine that has taken us out of an age where minor bacterial infections could be fatal. In fact, 4 out of 5 adults in the U.S. have taken antibiotics at some point in their life, while prescriptions given to children occur at an even higher rate. Unfortunately, nearly 30% of all antibiotic prescriptions are unnecessary. The medical community has long been in debate about whether the pros of antibiotics outweigh the cons but one thing is certain: antibiotics, while helpful, need to be taken with caution.
Read on to learn more about what antibiotics are, the pros and cons of taking antibiotics, and which illnesses and infections can be treated with antibiotics.
What are antibiotics?
Essentially, antibiotics are medications that help stop infections caused by bacteria. They work in two ways: they kill the bad bacteria causing the infection and keep the bacteria from reproducing more harmful bacteria. While there are over 100 types of antibiotics, there are 10 antibiotics that are most commonly used:
Each type of antibiotic is only effective for certain types of bacterial infections (like strep throat or a urinary tract infection). When an antibiotic is prescribed, it’s meant to treat the specific spectrum of germs that are causing the infection. They are not, however, effective at treating viral infections (like a cold or the flu).
What do I need to know about antibiotic resistance?
The first antibiotics were discovered in the 1920s and couldn’t have come at a better time. Back then, even minor bacterial infections like strep throat were known to be fatal because there wasn’t an effective way to treat them. When the use of antibiotics became more widespread in the 1940s, people started living longer because of the ability to stop bad bacteria in its tracks. Since then, antibiotics have become a staple of modern medicine, used to treat everything from urinary tract infections to pneumonia.
However, the overuse and misuse of antibiotics has created a worldwide problem. Doctor’s have been prescribing them to patients who don’t really need them, a lot of whom have viral infections that can’t be treated with antibiotics. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Antibiotic resistance is rising to dangerously high levels in all parts of the world. New resistance mechanisms are emerging and spreading globally, threatening our ability to treat common infectious diseases. A growing list of infections – such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, blood poisoning, gonorrhea, and foodborne diseases – are becoming harder, and sometimes impossible, to treat as antibiotics become less effective.”
That doesn’t mean that antibiotics shouldn’t be used. They can be extremely helpful in treating bacterial infections. But, as bacteria become more resistant to antibiotics, it’s important to make sure that they are only used when absolutely necessary, prescribed in the right doses, and taken only as advised by a healthcare professional. If you are prescribed antibiotics, it’s important that you take all of your prescribed doses — stopping it too soon can lead to resistance.
What’s the difference between antibiotics and probiotics?
Think of your body like an ecosystem — it’s teeming with all kinds of bacteria, most of which are good bacteria that help your body digest food, absorb nutrients from your food, and develop a strong immune system. These bacteria are known as probiotics.
Antibiotics are meant to fight off any bad bacteria that causes an infection in your body. They’re generally highly effective at this when the right type of antibiotic is prescribed. However, antibiotics can sometimes kill off the probiotics that live inside of you. When this happens, you’re at more of a risk for developing side effects from the antibiotics, especially diarrhea. But there’s good news: you can safely take a probiotic supplement while you’re taking antibiotics. Just make sure you take them about 2 hours apart, to reduce the risk of the antibiotics fighting the probiotics you take.
Are antibiotics safe?
If prescribed and taken correctly, antibiotics are generally safe and can kill off the bacteria causing an infection. Still, it’s important to be aware of the potential side effects of antibiotics, as well as how they may interact with other medications you take.
What are the side effects of antibiotics?
While certain side effects are more common in some antibiotics than others, all antibiotics pose the risk of:
- Photosensitivity (sensitivity to light and/or being more prone to sunburn while you’re on the antibiotic)
- Tooth discoloration (this is most prevalent in children whose teeth are still developing)
Are there serious side effects to antibiotics?
While these antibiotic side effects are rare, they are also serious. If you’re taking antibiotics and are concerned about side effects you’re experiencing, you should call your doctor or head to urgent care right away (you can use Solv to find an urgent care near you and book an appointment online).
- Allergic reaction — Some people are allergic to certain types of antibiotics. If you are, you’ll likely develop an allergic reaction soon after starting your antibiotics. Some of the symptoms you may experience if you’re having an allergic reaction include:
- Trouble breathing
- Swelling of the tongue
- Stevens-Johnson Syndrome — This is a disorder of the skin and mucous membranes that starts off with flu-like symptoms (such as a sore throat and a fever) and can be followed by a painful rash that spreads and blisters. Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, or SJS, most commonly affects people with a weakened immune system or a family history of SJS. Other symptoms of SJS may include:
- skin pain
- swelling of your face or tongue
- pain in your mouth and throat
- Blood reactions — Again, people with weakened immune systems are more prone to developing blood reactions when taking antibiotics. The main symptom of a blood reaction is a new infection, especially if it appears suddenly after starting an antibiotic.
- Tendonitis — Certain types of antibiotics, specifically ciprofloxacin, have been linked to tendonitis (or when a tendon that connects bone to muscle rips or tears).
- Seizures — It’s very rare to have a seizure due to taking an antibiotic but it can happen. People who have epilepsy or have a history of seizures should let their doctor know before taking an antibiotic.
Can antibiotics interfere with other medications that I take?
One common concern people have about antibiotics is whether they can negatively interact with other medications. This concern is not without cause; antibiotics can both reduce the effectiveness of other medications and cause adverse health issues when used at the same time as other medication. These medications range from Vitamin A supplements to birth control to antidepressants. For a full list of antibiotic interactions, this article by National Health Services is helpful. Be sure to let your doctor know if you’re taking any other prescriptions or supplements, or if you’re on birth control, if they decide you need to take an antibiotic.
Is it safe for kids to take antibiotics?
Just as antibiotics are safe for most adults, kids can also take antibiotics to treat bacterial infections. It’s worth pointing out, though, that children are often mis-prescribed antibiotics for illnesses that are viral, not bacterial. When this happens, there’s an increased risk of antibiotic resistance happening, which could prevent children from being effectively treated by antibiotics when they do have a bacterial infection.
Who should not take antibiotics?
While most everyone can take antibiotics, people who are pregnant, breastfeeding, have liver or kidney diseases, or have weakened immune systems should be extra cautious about when and if they take them.
When do you need antibiotics?
In light of the World Health Organization’s fight against the overuse and misuse of antibiotics, many people are questioning whether they really need the antibiotics they’re being prescribed. While this is a legitimate concern, there’s good news.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), antibiotic prescriptions written in doctor’s offices and urgent care clinics dropped by 5% between 2011 and 2014 and are still improving today. On the flip side, an article written by Consumer Reports for The Washington Post says “still, in 2015, one-third of antibiotic prescriptions dispensed from pharmacies outside hospitals were unnecessary. Most were given to people with upper-respiratory conditions, which are often viral; antibiotics are effective only against bacterial infections.”
When you go to urgent care with your health concern, not only are you spending less money than you would at the emergency room, you’re also increasing your odds of being prescribed antibiotics only when you really need them.
Which bacterial infections and illnesses are treated for at urgent care?
Urgent care clinics treat for a broad range of infections and illnesses. They are generally equipped to handle most non-life-threatening health concerns. When it comes to bacterial infections that you may need antibiotics for, urgent care is a good place to go for:
- Conjunctivitis (pink eye)
- Ear infections
- Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)
- Strep throat
- Upper respiratory infections
- Urinary tract infections (UTI)
- Skin infections
If you have or think you might have any of these bacterial infections, you can use Solv to book a same-day urgent care appointment.
What are the pros and cons of antibiotics in 2019?
Over the last 70 years, antibiotics have been used to treat all kinds of bacterial infections. Without a doubt, they save lives. Still, there are downsides to taking antibiotics. Here, let’s take a look at some pros and cons of antibiotics in 2019.
What are the benefits of antibiotics?
- Antibiotics, when prescribed and taken properly, are highly effective at treating bacterial infections
- Most antibiotics have few side effects
- Antibiotics, especially those with generic alternatives, are affordable even if you don’t have health insurance
What are the disadvantages of taking antibiotics?
- Compromised gut health
- Risk of common and severe side effects
- Potential for becoming resistant to antibiotics in the future
- Antibiotics are the most frequent cause of adverse drug events (ADEs) that lead to emergency room visits in children and adults
Think you need antibiotics? Here are some questions you should ask your doctor.
If your doctor is prescribing you an antibiotic, chances are you need it. However, because of the uptick in antibiotic resistance, as well as the potential side effects of taking antibiotics, it can never hurt to ask questions. Here are some questions you may want to ask before taking antibiotics:
- Is my infection bacterial or viral? Can you test for that?
- Are there vaccinations that can protect me from bacterial infections?
- If myself or my child has an allergic reaction to an antibiotic, does that mean there’s an antibiotic resistance?
- What are the side effects of the antibiotic you’re prescribing?
- Are there are any over-the-counter medications we can try before using an antibiotic?
Antibiotics are practically a miracle drug. When they were first invented, they saved countless lives and, to this day, continue to do so. If you or your child develops a bacterial infection, one of the keys to returning to health could be an antibiotic. Still, go in with your eyes wide open and make sure that, if you are prescribed an antibiotic, you’re getting the correct prescription at the correct dosage and taking it as recommended.