Antibiotics Guide - When (and When Not) to Take Antibiotics

Antibiotics Guide - When (and When Not) to Take Antibiotics

You’re sick and you just want whatever it is to go away so you can get on with your life. So you head to your doctor’s office or to urgent care and beg them to prescribe you antibiotics to help it go away. The provider may know that antibiotics won’t actually help, but they prescribe them. You go on your way, hoping to feel better within 7 to 10 days.

Antibiotics are a type of medication that helps stop infections caused by bacteria. Since the 1920s, when antibiotics were first discovered, they have become a popular and incredibly useful, life-saving medicine. Before antibiotics were found, even a minor bacterial infection could be fatal because there was no effective way to treat it. Today, antibiotics are widely used to treat all kinds of bacterial infections — from pneumonia to strep throat.

If you or your child end up with a bacterial infection, chances are you’ll be prescribed antibiotics. However, many common illnesses such as the flu or respiratory issues are caused by a virus, not bacteria. So are antibiotics always the best course of action? Not necessarily. Read to find out when you should take antibiotics, who should not take them, the difference between bacterial and viral infections, and which infections the most common antibiotics are used to treat.

What is Antibiotic Resistance?

However, antibiotics are often over-prescribed, meaning doctors give them to people who don’t actually need them. In fact, almost 30% of all antibiotic prescriptions are unnecessary. A 2014 review in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that despite decades of evidence proving that antibiotics don’t work against respiratory illness, doctors prescribe the medicine for acute bronchitis about 70% of the time.

This is alarming because, when taken too often, antibiotic resistance occurs, making antibiotics useless against curing the infections they are meant to treat. The overuse and misuse of antibiotics have caused resistance to rise across the globe. Certain infections are becoming harder to treat as antibiotics become less effective. These infections include pneumonia, blood poisoning, gonorrhea, and foodborne illness.

What are Antibiotic Stewardship Programs?

While antibiotic overuse and resistance is a scary issue — even the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are warning about the associated dangers — rest easy knowing that experts are taking serious steps toward correcting the problem. Antibiotic Stewardship Programs for hospitals, nursing homes, and other healthcare facilities have been put into place.

The CDC says, “Improving the use of antibiotics is an important patient safety and public health issue as well as a national priority. In 2009, CDC launched the first educational effort to promote improved use of antibiotics in acute care hospitals and in 2013; the CDC highlighted the need to improve antibiotic use as one of four key strategies required to address the problem of antibiotic resistance in the U.S. A growing body of evidence demonstrates that hospital-based programs dedicated to improving antibiotic use, commonly referred to as “Antibiotic Stewardship Programs (ASPs)”, can both optimize the treatment of infections and reduce adverse events associated with antibiotic use. These programs help clinicians improve the quality of patient care and improve patient safety through increased infection cure rates, reduced treatment failures, and increased frequency of correct prescribing for therapy and prophylaxis. They also significantly reduce hospital rates of...antibiotic resistance.”

That’s not to say you shouldn’t take antibiotics — they are very helpful in treating bacterial infections. You should take antibiotics only when you have a bacterial infection that is not going away on its own. The most important rules to follow when taking antibiotics are:

Only take antibiotics for bacterial infections. If you take them for a viral infection, your body will create a resistance to them and, when a time comes that you do really need them, they won’t work.

Take antibiotics as prescribed. This means taking the proper dose as the recommended time and finishing your entire course of antibiotics. If you don’t finish the course, the antibiotics won’t be effective and your body will create resistance.

Who should NOT take antibiotics?

While antibiotics are meant only to treat bacterial infections, there are some bacterial infections that they won’t help — most cases of bronchitis, sinus infections, and ear infections, specifically. If you have a viral infection such as a cold, flu, or runny nose, antibiotics will not help.

If you take an antibiotic when you don’t need one, it won’t help you feel better but you could still experience unpleasant side effects such as:

What’s the difference between bacterial and viral infections?

As you can see, the difference between having a bacterial or viral infection can make a huge difference in the type of treatment you receive. So, what causes bacterial infections and what causes viral infections? It’s quite straightforward.

Bacterial infections are caused by bacteria, which are small, single-celled microorganisms that thrive in a number of environments. Everyone has bacteria living in their bodies and most of this bacteria is helpful. However, when foreign bacteria enters your body, your immune system will try to fight it off. When this happens, you may experience symptoms of a bacterial infection. Bacterial infections, as you now know, can be treated with antibiotics,

Viruses, on the other hand, are much smaller than bacteria and almost always cause illness. Viruses can’t survive without a host. While viral infections may display similar symptoms to those resulting from bacterial infections, viruses can’t be treated with antibiotics. Vaccinations are the best course of prevention against viruses. However, some viral infections (like a common cold) are just left to run their course.

What are the most common antibiotics used to treat?

Antibiotics are separated into separate classes, all of which are used to treat different types of bacterial infection. 

What are the Ten Most Common Classes of Antibiotics?

  1. Penicillins
  2. Tetracyclines
  3. Cephalosporins
  4. Quinolones
  5. Lincomycins
  6. Macrolides
  7. Sulfonamides
  8. Glycopeptides
  9. Aminoglycosides
  10. Carbapenems


Within each class of antibiotic are different brand names and generic alternatives. Take a look below at which common antibiotics treat which infections.

What is Augmentin?

Augmentin is a combination of amoxicillin and clavulanate potassium (an inhibitor that helps certain bacteria from becoming resistant to amoxicillin). This antibiotic is a penicillin.

Augmentin is used to treat:

What are Flagyl and Flagyl ER?

Flagyl and Flagyl ER are the brand name versions of metronidazole.

Flagyl is used primarily to treat bacterial infections of the:

  • Vagina
  • Stomach
  • Liver
  • Skin
  • Joints
  • Brain
  • Respiratory Tract

What is Amoxil?

Another brand name for amoxicillin is Amoxil.

Amoxil is prescribed to treat:

  • Tonsillitis
  • Bronchitis
  • Pneumonia
  • Gonorrhea
  • Infections of the ear, nose, throat, skin, or urinary tract

What is Cipro?

A fluoroquinolone antibiotic, Cipro is used to treat people who have been exposed to anthrax.

  • The fluoroquinolone class of antibiotics can cause serious or disabling side effects and should not be used if the infection can be treated with a safer antibiotic.

What is Keflex?

Keflex, and its generic version, cephalexin, are cephalosporin antibiotics.

Keflex treats bacterial infections such as:

  • Upper respiratory infections
  • Ear infections
  • Skin infections
  • Urinary tract infections

What is Bactrim and Bactrim DS?

Bactrim is a combination of sulfamethoxazole and trimethoprim.

Both Bactrim and Bactrim DS are used to treat:

  • Ear infections
  • Bronchitis
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Traveler’s diarrhea
  • Shigellosis
  • Certain types of pneumonia

What is Levaquin?

Levaquin (generic name: levofloxacin) is another fluoroquinolone antibiotic and should only be used when absolutely necessary.

Levaquin is used to treat bacterial infections of the:

  • Skin
  • Sinuses
  • Kidney
  • Bladder
  • Prostate


  • Bronchitis
  • Pneumonia
  • Anthrax exposure

What is Zithromax?

Azithromycin, or the brand name version, Zithromax, can be used to treat:

  • Respiratory infections (as long as they are bacterial)
  • Skin infections
  • Ear infections
  • Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)

What is Avelox?

Another fluoroquinolone antibiotic, Avelox (also known as moxifloxacin) should be used only when absolutely necessary. A safer antibiotic is better.

Avelox is used to treat:

  • Skin infections
  • Sinus infections
  • Lung infections
  • Stomach infections
  • Community-acquired pneumonia
  • Plague
  • Bacterial sinusitis
  • Chronic bronchitis with bacterial infection

What is Cleocin?

Cleocin is an antibiotic that works by stopping the growth of bacteria. It is used for a number of different bacterial infections.

Can I Get Prescribed Antibiotics at Urgent Care?

It’s clear that antibiotics have their advantages and disadvantages. When prescribed and taken properly, antibiotics can be considered a miracle medicine. However, when not prescribed appropriately or taken as prescribed, antibiotics can be quite dangerous in both the short- and long-term.

If you’re sick with a bacterial infection, you can head to urgent care for treatment. It will be up to your doctor to decide whether you need antibiotics or not. If you are prescribed antibiotics, a good question to ask is: how do you know if I have a bacterial or viral infection? Make sure your doctor does a test to determine which you have, instead of guessing. 

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