Important Things You Need to Know About Antibiotics

By Christine Robinson, PharmD, Lamoille Health Pharmacy

Can you recall the last time you went to the doctor for strep throat or a urinary tract infection? Your care provider likely ordered an antibiotic medicine that you picked up at the pharmacy.

An antibiotic is a prescription medicine that fights infections caused by bacteria. It works by either killing the bacteria or making it difficult for the bacteria to grow and multiply. Antibiotics are usually pills that you take for a certain number of days, or for children, the antibiotic medicine could be a liquid.

But what exactly are bacteria? And why can’t we use antibiotics to treat every illness?

Bacteria are germs. They live in the environment and all over the inside and outside of our bodies. Most bacteria are harmless. In fact, many are even helpful in keeping your body working properly.

However, some bacteria can make you ill. Your immune system can typically attack harmful bacteria before it multiplies and causes symptoms. But, sometimes the number of harmful bacteria is very high, and the immune system can’t fight them all off. In those situations, antibiotics are needed.

How to know when an antibiotic is needed

Your healthcare provider is the only person who can say whether you may need an antibiotic when you’re sick. It’s important to remember that antibiotics only treat certain infections caused by bacteria, such as strep throat, whooping cough, and urinary tract infections. They may be used to treat life-threatening conditions caused by bacteria, such as sepsis, which is the body’s extreme response to infection.

However, antibiotics do not work on viruses, such as those that cause colds, coughs, most sore throats and the flu. Some illnesses will get better on their own, without the use of antibiotics. Taking antibiotics when they’re not needed won’t help you, and can cause other problems.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 47 million antibiotic prescriptions each year could be unnecessary or are used for conditions that don’t need antibiotics. It’s important that patients only take antibiotics that are prescribed to them when their provider decides an antibiotic is the right treatment.

Unfortunately, antibiotics don’t just kill bad bacteria. They also kill useful bacteria living in your body. This can cause side effects such as an upset stomach, diarrhea, a rash, or even another infection such as a yeast infection.

More serious side effects of antibiotics may include allergic reactions. The disruption of normal healthy bacteria in the colon can create an unhealthy germ — known as “C. difficile” — which causes diarrhea that can lead to colon damage and death. It’s important to contact your provider immediately if you develop any side effects from taking antibiotics.

Take antibiotics exactly as prescribed

If your healthcare provider decides that an antibiotic is the best treatment when you’re ill, it’s important to take the antibiotic exactly as instructed. You should take the medicine for the exact number of days as indicated, even if you begin to feel better. If you stop the treatment early, you may not eliminate enough bacteria, and the condition could come back.

Always read the instructions on the medicine bottle and ask your pharmacist if you have any questions about your antibiotic. Prescriptions filled at the Lamoille Health Pharmacy in Stowe always include instructions, the name of the medicine, how and when to take it, and for how long. You’ll also find the phone number to call with questions on the medicine bottle.

Additionally, antibiotics should never be shared with others, and it’s important that you do not take antibiotics prescribed for someone else. This can delay the best treatment for you, make you even sicker, or cause side effects.

Returning to work or school after starting antibiotics

Antibiotics start working quickly once you begin the treatment, and you can expect to see improvement in symptoms within one to three days.

For many of the common childhood bacterial infections treated with antibiotics, such as strep throat, 24 hours of being on the antibiotic is enough to make sure your child is no longer contagious. If you or your child is fever-free and feeling better after 24 hours, it is OK to return to work or school.

Some infections, such as whooping cough, however, require a patient to be on antibiotics for at least five days to make sure that they are no longer contagious. Be sure to follow your care provider’s instructions.

Still, it’s important to keep energy level and appetite in mind when determining how soon to return to school or work. If you or your child is still dealing with a fever, feeling tired or not up for eating much, stay at home for another day or two until you’re fully recovered.

For more information whether an antibiotic may be appropriate for an illness you or someone in your family is experiencing, please contact your Lamoille Health Partners healthcare provider.