Everything You May (or May Not) Have Wanted to Know about Antibiotics

Virus holding a sign

What are antibiotics?

Antibiotics are a type of drug that fights bacterial infections. The medical field started using antibiotics in the 1940s and they have saved many lives. Antibiotics can only treat bacterial infections, not viral infections.

What is the difference between a viral and a bacterial infection?

Bacteria are single-celled organisms that are found almost everywhere in and on our bodies. Most bacteria are actually helpful, but there are a few that can cause illnesses. Bacteria commonly cause illnesses like strep throat or most kinds of ear and sinus infections.

Viruses are much smaller and have to invade the cells of other organisms in order to survive. Viruses cause illness when they infect cells in order to reproduce. Viruses are typically responsible for illnesses like colds, the flu, most coughs and bronchitis, fevers, diarrhea, vomiting, and sore throats (with the exception of strep throat).

How do I know if I have a viral or a bacterial infection?

It can be really hard to tell without the help of your doctor. Bacterial and viral infections often share the same symptoms—coughs, sore throats, and stuffy noses. People often think that green or yellow nasal discharge or phlegm is an indication of a bacterial infection, but those same symptoms can also occur with a virus.

If you have a viral infection, an antibiotic is not going to help. Your best bet is to get plenty of rest and fluids. But you may want to call your doctor if you have:

  • A fever higher than 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Severe difficulty breathing.
  • Symptoms that continue longer than 14 days.
  • A weak immune system or other medical complications.
  • Extreme fatigue.
  • A hard time standing because you are so weak.
  • A fever with a rash or headache.

Can I take an antibiotic just in case it is a bacterial infection?

If you have a viral infection, taking an antibiotic can do more harm than good. Antibiotics not only kill off bad bacteria, but also some of the good bacteria in your body. This can cause side effects like diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, or rashes. Some people are also allergic to certain antibiotics. If antibiotics are unable to treat your illness, any possible side effects are only going to make you feel worse instead of better.

But the biggest reason doctors are careful about prescribing antibiotics is because the overuse of antibiotics is causing bacteria to become more resistant. Unfortunately, antibiotic-resistant bacteria have become a major health problem.

What is antibiotic resistance?

Antibiotic resistance is when an antibiotic no longer works on certain bacteria. When you use an antibiotic, all the sensitive bacteria are killed first, but some of the more resistant bacteria may survive. These bacteria then multiply and create a stronger and more resistant bacteria. Every time you take an antibiotic, it becomes more likely that the bacteria in your body will become more resistant to antibiotics.

Doctors are particularly concerned about antibiotic-resistance because it can make treating infections much more difficult, and sometimes even impossible. Commonly used antibiotics are now becoming infective at treating most of the more significant bacterial infections. A good example of this is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). MRSA used to be only found in hospitals, but it is now being spread to healthy people everywhere.

Antibiotic resistant infections can lead to longer hospital stays, more doctor visits, longer illnesses, more aggressive and toxic treatments, and sometimes even death. How we use antibiotics can have some serious consequences.

How can I use antibiotics properly?

First, you should only take antibiotics when you really need them and your doctor prescribes them. Don’t take old prescriptions or somebody else’s antibiotics. Never pressure your doctor for a prescription. Always take your antibiotics exactly as prescribed. Don’t skip doses and don’t stop taking them once you start to feel better. If you stop your treatment too soon, some of the stronger bacteria may have survived and can cause a re-infection.

If antibiotics don’t work on viruses, what can I do to treat a viral infection?

Your best bet is to prevent infection in the first place. You can prevent the spread of germs by practicing good hygiene, washing your hands, and keeping surfaces in your home clean. Although antibiotics don’t work on viruses, vaccines do work for some viruses. Being up-to-date on your vaccinations and getting your yearly flu vaccine can help prevent many of the more serious infections.

If you are already sick, you should get plenty of rest, drink lots of liquids, and use home remedies or over-the-counter medicines to treat your symptoms. The good news is that most viral infections don’t last very long and you should be back to your old self in no time.


U.S. National Library of Medicine – Antibiotics
American Academy of Family Physicians – Antibiotics: When They Can and Can’t Help
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work

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