This is a post prepared under a contract funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and written on behalf of the Mom It Forward Influencer Network for use in CDC’s Be Antibiotics Aware educational effort. Opinions on this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of CDC.
Several years ago, my brother wasn’t feeling well, so he started taking some antibiotics he had left over from a previous prescription. He was young and assumed antibiotics worked for everything, but after taking them for a few days and not feeling any better, he decided to visit his healthcare professional. My brother learned that the antibiotics he was taking didn’t make him feel better because he had a virus and antibiotics only treat infections caused by bacteria.
It’s true antibiotics save lives, but did you know that in doctors’ offices and emergency departments in the United States about 47 million unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions are written each year? This means we all should seriously put a little more focus on learning as much as possible about antibiotics and help improve antibiotic prescribing and use.
Antibiotics can be life-saving, but they should only be used when they are absolutely necessary. Did you know that each year in the United States, there are enough antibiotic prescriptions written in outpatient settings to give five out of every six people one antibiotic prescription each year?
To make things worse, about 50 percent of all antibiotics in U.S. outpatient settings are prescribed incorrectly. Yes, that means the wrong antibiotic, at the wrong dose, for the wrong length of time, or at the wrong time.
Education is the first step to being antibiotics aware. Here are a few things you should know about antibiotics.
What antibiotics treat and what they don’t treat
Did you know that antibiotics don’t work on viruses that often cause cold and flu, bronchitis, or runny noses, even if you notice that the mucus is thick, yellow, or green? If you or a family member has a virus, an antibiotic will not make you feel better. As a matter of fact, respiratory viruses typically go away in a week or two without treatment. Ask your healthcare professional about the best way to feel better while your body fights off the virus.
Like my brother, many people start feeling bad and reach for leftover antibiotics, but it’s important to know you should never save antibiotics for the next time you become sick or take antibiotics prescribed for someone else. In fact, you shouldn’t even have leftover antibiotics. If you need antibiotics, take them exactly as prescribed.
Antibiotics are critical tools for treating people with serious and life-threatening conditions like pneumonia and sepsis, the body’s extreme response to an infection.
Antibiotics don’t work for every infection
Antibiotics are only needed for treating certain infections caused by bacteria, but even some bacterial infections get better without antibiotics. Antibiotics also aren’t needed for some common bacterial infections, including many sinus infections and some ear infections.
Antibiotic resistance is a real concern
Did you know that antibiotic resistance is one of the most urgent threats to the public’s health? Each year in the United States, at least 2 million people get infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. At least 23,000 people die as a result. Antibiotic resistance does not mean the body is becoming resistant to antibiotics; it means that bacteria develop the ability to defeat the antibiotics designed to kill them.
Antibiotics’ side effects
It’s easy to assume antibiotics are safe, but any time we use antibiotics they can cause side effects and can lead to antibiotic resistance.
When antibiotics aren’t needed, they won’t help you, and the side effects could still hurt you. Side effects range from minor to severe health problems such as a rash or Clostridioides difficile infection (also called C. difficile or C. diff). When you need antibiotics for an infection, then the benefits of the drug usually outweigh the risk of side effects.
There are things you can do to feel better without antibiotics
If antibiotics are not needed, there are several things you can do to feel better, such as:
- Get plenty of rest.
- Use a humidifier.
- Don’t smoke.
- Avoid secondhand smoke.
- Avoid airborne chemicals or irritants.
- Use saline nasal spray or drops.
- If needed, take acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen to help with the pain and fever. Before taking anything, be sure to talk with your healthcare professional to make sure you’re taking the correct medication.
You can find other things you or your family member can do to relieve some symptoms on the CDC website.
Do your best to stay healthy
Stay healthy and keep others healthy by cleaning hands, covering coughs, staying home when sick, and getting recommended vaccines—for the flu, for example.
(Antibiotics Aren’t Always the Answer Video: https://youtu.be/XM0EYKfUxkc)
Improving the way we take antibiotics helps keep us healthy now, helps fight antibiotic resistance, and ensures that life-saving antibiotics will be available for future generations.
To learn more about antibiotic prescribing and use, visit www.cdc.gov/antibiotic-use.
To learn more about sepsis, a life-threatening condition that is treated with antibiotics, visit www.cdc.gov/sepsis.