How Do Antibiotics Work and When Should I Take Them?

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How Do Antibiotics Work?

Antibiotics are medications designed to kill bad bacteria within the body. Commonly prescribed antibiotics include penicillin (such as amoxicillin), doxycycline and others. They are available as pills, ointments, liquids, or injections. Unfortunately, antibiotics do not work for infections caused by viruses such as the common cold, influenza, viral sore throats and most cases of sinusitis or bronchitis.

If you take an antibiotic when you don’t have a bacterial infection, it won't help you get any better. The antibiotics will still target the good bacteria in your body. When you lose your good bacteria, certain types of bacteria, like C. diff, can grow out of control in your body and give you a very aggressive type of diarrhea.

“People sometimes believe when prescribed an antibiotic, the antibiotic alone helped them,” says Jessica Manders, PA-C, “when in fact they would have gotten better from their viral infection without an antibiotic, simply because the virus had taken that time to run its course.”

Always follow the direction of your doctor, who can prescribe antibiotics when appropriate.

What Do Antibiotics Treat?

Some examples of bacterial infections treated with antibiotics include:

Sinus infections - Sinus infections are viral and can turn bacterial when symptoms are present for 10 or more days. Sometimes sinus infections are treated sooner if indicators of bacterial infection are present.

Bronchitis - Bronchitis is an infection of the airways leading to the lungs and is usually viral. Coughing up green mucus does not mean it is a bacterial infection. In cases where there is a viral infection, symptoms will improve with time and supportive measures (i.e. rest, fluids, and an over-the-counter mucus decongestant).

What Are Side Effects of Antibiotics?

Antibiotics can have side effects. Some of the most common side effects of antibiotics include:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea, constipation, or both
  • yeast infection
  • dizziness

Allergies to antibiotics are also common. An allergy to an antibiotic usually presents with a flat rash and itching. More serious allergic reactions such as lip/tongue swelling, trouble swallowing or breathing can also occur.

Most commonly prescribed antibiotics do not cause fatigue. Feeling tired or fatigued may simply be a side effect of your body fighting the infection. If you have concerns or new symptoms, talk to your doctor.

Can You Drink Alcohol While Taking Antibiotics?

If you’re taking antibiotics, always check your prescription label or ask your pharmacist on how to take the medication. In general, antibiotic effectiveness is not impacted by alcohol but can sometimes lead to unwanted side effects, such as an upset stomach. Alcohol also does have a negative impact on your immune system, which may slow down your recovery time. So, it’s a good idea to skip the alcohol until you’re feeling better again.

How Long Does It Take Antibiotics To Work?

Antibiotics get to work as soon as they enter your system. However, how long it takes to start feeling better can vary and depends on the type and severity of the bacterial infection the antibiotic is treating. It typically takes between two and three days, while some conditions may require a two-week regimen before symptoms start to disappear. If the pep in your step returns before you’ve finished your prescription, it’s best to finish it all to wipe out any remaining bacteria that could cause a reoccurrence of the illness.

What is Antibiotic Resistance?

Recently, increased use of antibiotics has led to a prevalence of antibiotic resistance bacteria. Unnecessary antibiotics can cause bacteria in your body to become resistant to antibiotics. This is when antibiotics are administered when not really needed; giving bacteria a chance to mutate, so they won’t be affected by the antibiotic later.

Why is Antibiotic Resistance a Problem?

Antibiotic resistance leads to people having antibiotic-resistant bacteria, causing possible hospitalization or multiple antibiotic treatments. People can even die when no alternative antibiotic is available to cure them. The CDC calls antibiotic resistance one of the biggest public health challenges of our time, reporting more than 2.8 million antimicrobial-resistance infections occur each year in the U.S. and more than 35,000 people die as a result. When C. diff develops and antibiotics aren't available due to resistance, these numbers rise to 3 million infections and 48,000 total deaths.

How to Prevent Antibiotic Resistance

There are ways to help reduce antibiotic resistance.

“Do not pressure your healthcare provider for an antibiotic prescription when they do not think it is needed,” says Jessica Manders, PA-C. "When prescribed antibiotics, finish all of the medication as directed without skipping doses or stopping medication unless directed otherwise."

Never take a prescription originally prescribed to someone else. A healthcare provider chooses each antibiotic and dosage for a particular infection because each antibiotic will treat certain kinds of bacteria and not others. Sometimes a culture grown in the lab is done to make sure the right antibiotic is being chosen.

How to Get Antibiotics Without Seeing a Doctor

When you’re not feeling well, talk to your doctor first to find out the best treatment option for you. Sometimes, over-the-counter medication like ibuprofen or acetaminophen may be sufficient.

At UnityPoint Health, patients can use the SmartExam online screening tool through the MyUnityPoint patient portal to be treated for common ailments and illnesses without seeing a provider. Within one hour, a provider reviews your information and will either send in a prescription or request that you be seen in person.