How Do Antibiotics Work?

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When to Take an Antibiotic

  • Antibiotics are powerful drugs, usually made from microorganisms and used to kill bacteria and fungal infections that make us ill. While they are great to use when you have an ear or sinus infection, for example, they can't treat a cold, flu or even most sore throats, all of which are the result of viruses, not bacteria, and all of which usually get better just by waiting them out.

How to Take an Antibiotic

  • Antibiotics can be specific to a type of bacteria or they can be broad-spectrum, attacking a variety of bacteria. Generally, your doctor will prescribe the antibiotic that's most likely to be effective against the specific bacteria you're fighting. Most antibiotics come in pill form, but some may be topical or given intravenously in a hospital or clinic.

    It's important to exactly follow the directions for taking your antibiotic. In most cases--no matter how well you feel--you must use the entire prescription to kill off all of the offending bacteria. If you don't, the infection will likely return; every time you do this, you make it much more difficult to rid yourself of it.

    Do not give your antibiotic medicine to anyone else, and do not take antibiotics prescribed for someone else. They may not work or could cause unwanted side effects, and this practice contributes to the rapidly growing worldwide problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

What Happens When You Take an Antibiotic

  • Antibiotics generally work by preventing the cell walls of the bacteria from fully developing thus killing the organism. When enough bad bacteria die off, the body is able to recover.

    Some people are allergic to certain types of antibiotics, so tell your doctor if you suspect you may be allergic. With the variety of antibiotics available today, an alternative may be available for you.

    Most antibiotics knock off some perfectly good and useful bacteria along with the bad, causing such common side effects as nausea, stomach cramps and diarrhea. So it's important to eat a healthy well-balanced diet if you're taking an antibiotic medication. Some people recommend increasing your intake of probiotic foods, such as yogurt, which encourage development of bacteria that are friendly to people.

When Not to Take an Antibiotic

  • If you have a cold, the flu or a sore throat, antibiotics will not help you. That's because these conditions are commonly caused by a virus, not a bacteria. Antibiotics can't kill a virus, so there's no point in wasting your time and money taking them. The exception is for strep throat, so if you're not sure, ask your doctor to test for the streptococcus bacteria.

    Keeping your hands clean, getting flu vaccinations and eating well should help limit the number of viral illnesses you get. Don't ask for or accept a prescription for antibiotics just to feel like you're "doing something." The abuse of antibiotics worldwide has led to increasingly resistant strains of bacteria for which there are fewer and fewer solutions. You can help by not taking unneeded antibiotic medicine!

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