When and Why to Use Antibiotics

Antibiotics save lives, but they’re not always the right medicine for what’s making you sick. Antibiotics only work on infections caused by bacteria and do not kill viruses that cause colds, the flu, or even runny noses.

Person taking medication

Sometimes, antibiotics won’t help stop common bacterial infections, like most cases of bronchitis, sinus infections, and even some ear infections, all of which could be caused by a virus. Asking your doctor for an antibiotic if you have a viral infection will not make you feel better. Respiratory viruses will usually go away in a week or two without treatment, and your doctor can give you some tips on how to relieve your symptoms as your body fights off the virus

Not only will taking an antibiotic have no impact on a virus, taking one when it’s not needed can cause what’s known as antibiotic resistance. Essentially, antibiotic resistance is what happens when bacteria develop the ability to defeat the drugs designed to kill them.

When I’m sick, I can’t tell if my illness is caused by bacteria or a virus. How will I know if I need an antibiotic?

Your doctor will tell you if your symptoms are being caused by bacteria, a virus, or something else. If your condition is a bacterial infection and your doctor prescribes antibiotics, take them exactly as prescribed. Ask your doctor any questions you have and be sure to call your doctor’s office if you develop any side effects, especially diarrhea. That could be a sign of a Clostridium difficile (or C. diff) infection, which should be treated right away.

Are there any risks that come with taking an antibiotic?

Yes, if they’re taken for conditions not caused by bacteria. It’s important to only take antibiotics for bacterial infections since they can put you or a loved one at risk for antibiotic-resistant infections.

Can antibiotics cause side effects?

There can be. Everyone may react differently to different antibiotics, but there’s no guarantee that you will notice any side effects if you take one. However, some common antibiotic side effects include:

  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Yeast infections
  • Allergic reactions
  • C. diff, which can be caused by a disruption in the normal, healthy bacteria in your digestive system

Antibiotics Are Not Always the Cure

When they’re needed, antibiotics do wonders. But they’re not always the right medication, and using them at the wrong time can lead to serious problems, namely antibiotic resistance.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are harder to kill and can more easily spread to other people. In fact, each year in the United States, at least 2 million people get infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and nearly 23,000 people die as a result, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Source: CDC.gov

The information provided is meant for a general audience. It is not a substitute for services or advice received from your health care providers who are the only ones that can diagnose and treat your individual medical conditions. Capital BlueCross and its affiliated companies believe this health education resource provides useful information but do not assume any liability associated with its use.