Alert

Taking antibiotics incorrectly can make you sick

By Christopher Parsons, M.D.

Director, Center for Infectious Disease

Pardee UNC Health Care

When used correctly, antibiotics can save lives and help people recover from illnesses. But too often, they are overprescribed and misused. When this happens, people can experience serious health complications, like antibiotic-resistant infections and severe side effects.

What are antibiotics?

The term “antibiotics” is very general and includes any medications used to treat infections, including bacterial, viral, and fungal infections. The most commonly used antibiotics treat bacterial infections such as urinary tract infections (UTIs), strep throat and skin infections. They are also used to treat more severe infections like sepsis. These antibiotics do not work for viral infections. Common viral illnesses include the common cold, COVID-19, the flu, most “chest colds” or bronchitis, the “stomach flu,” and most cases of sore throat (other than strep throat).

Antibiotics are not needed for common bacterial infections that typically clear up on their own, such as some ear infections and many sinus infections. In addition, many patients carry bacteria in their urinary tract which is not harmful to them if their symptoms are minor, and antibiotics often cause more harm than good in these situations. Ask your doctor if you truly meet criteria for receiving antibiotics for a UTI, or whether you can simply monitor your symptoms.

Antibiotic side effects

It’s important to understand when you should and shouldn’t take antibiotics because they can cause side effects like diarrhea, yeast infections, rashes and nausea. Your gut is full of healthy bacteria which serve a useful purpose, and antibiotics may affect these bacteria and cause digestive problems.

Some people experience more serious complications including life-threatening allergic reactions, kidney damage, antibiotic-resistant infections, and even Clostridioides difficile – also known as “C. diff” – which can potentially lead to serious colon damage or death.

Antibiotics can also interfere with the effectiveness of some forms of birth control, so ask your provider if you need to use other contraceptive methods while on antibiotics.

If you experience any side effects from antibiotics, contact your health care provider immediately.

What is antibiotic resistance?

Antibiotic resistance is a major threat to public health. Sometimes resistant bacteria may emerge during antibiotic use, causing new infections that are harder to treat. These bacteria can also be transmitted from person-to-person to in many cases.

Each year, nearly 2.8 million Americans experience antibiotic-resistant infections and more than 35,000 die of these infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

What you can do to prevent antibiotic resistance

Don’t take common antibiotics for viral infections or pressure your health care provider to prescribe antibiotics if they aren’t recommended. If your provider prescribes an antibiotic, ask them why it’s needed.

If you are prescribed antibiotics, follow the directions carefully. Never save antibiotics for later, or give them to someone else or take someone else’s prescription.

Antibiotics can be a helpful, even lifesaving tool when used appropriately. However, when used incorrectly, they can cause serious side effects and contribute to antibiotic resistance. Talk to your health care provider if you have questions about antibiotics. To find a provider near you, visit www.pardeehospital.org.

Dr. Parsons is the director of the Center for Infectious Disease at Pardee UNC Health Care.

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