Answering your FAQs about antibiotics

Published: Wednesday, November 29, 2023
Alix Schnibben
Director, Clinical Quality and Pharmacy Services, NGPG

Odds are, you’ve taken antibiotics a time or two to treat an illness. Most people have. But you may still have questions about what they are and how they work best.

With the colder months coming up fast, the time where contagious illnesses go wild is also quickly approaching. If an antibiotic is prescribed to you, it’s important to know how to take it correctly and why you’re taking it.

When antibiotics are taken incorrectly or misused, a dangerous phenomenon known as antibiotic resistance is possible. When the bacteria causing an infection becomes resistant to the antibiotic it can persist. This can lead to difficult to treat infections, dangerous outbreaks and serious health effects.

Have questions about antibiotics? Keep reading to get the facts about these common medications.

Q: What are antibiotics?

A: Antibiotics are a class of medications used to treat bacterial infections, like strep throat or a urinary tract infection. The name “antibiotic” means a substance that stops bacteria from growing.

These potent medications work by killing or stopping bacterial growth.

Penicillin was the first widely recognized antibiotic, discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928. Fleming noticed that Penicillium notatum, a fungus, inhibited bacteria from growing nearby.

Since the discovery of penicillin, many other antibiotics have been discovered or created synthetically.Different types of antibiotics are used to treat different bacterial infections.

Antibiotics are now one of the most commonly prescribed medication classes. Each year in the United States alone, more than 200 million antibiotic prescriptions are written.

Q: Can antibiotics help with the flu?

A: No! The flu is an infection cause by the influenza virus, so it cannot be treated using an antibiotic. Many common infections are caused by a virus, including the flu, COVID-19, the common cold, and RSV.

When you have a viral infection, your medical provider may prescribe an antiviral medication, which can be used to shorten the duration of your illness and lessen its severity.

In most cases, viruses are treated with basic at-home care, including getting plenty of rest and quality sleep, drinking lots of fluids, and taking over-the-counter medications to relieve symptoms, like a sore throat. If these basics don’t help alleviate your symptoms or your illness lingers for more than a few days, check in with your medical provider to be sure your illness is a virus.

Q: I feel better. Do I need to keep taking my antibiotics?

A: If you’re prescribed an antibiotic to treat a bacterial infection, you should take your antibiotic as prescribed and consult your provider before stopping.

Learn more about antibiotic resistance.

Q: Do I need to know anything special about taking antibiotics

A: When you’re prescribed an antibiotic, your medical provider and your pharmacist will provide you with instructions for taking it. It’s important to carefully follow those instructions to keep you healthy and treat your infection.

Here are some basics for taking antibiotics:

  • Follow the instructions from the pharmacy. There are multiple forms of antibiotics that you would take at home, including pills and liquid medication. Certain antibiotics need to be kept refrigerated, so be sure to carefully listen when the pharmacist reviews the instructions. The pharmacist can also advise whether it should be taken with or without food.
  • Know the right dosage. This is another tip that’s especially important when taking a liquid antibiotic. Know the exact dosage you should be providing to your child (or taking yourself), and use a dosage spoon, not a regular spoon, to dispense the medication correctly.
  • Talk with the pharmacist about alcohol use. You shouldn’t drink alcohol while taking many antibiotics, so if you drink, find out whether it’s safe. Some antibiotics can cause serious adverse effects, including liver problems, when combined with alcohol.
  • Care for your gut. Antibiotics kill off the bad bacteria responsible for infections, but they can also clear out the good bacteria that helps your body function. This can cause unpleasant side effects, such as GI issues like diarrhea. Talk with your provider about whether you could benefit from taking a probiotic to replenish the healthy bacteria in your body while taking antibiotics. A probiotic can also help prevent other unpleasant health issues sometimes caused by antibiotics, including yeast infections.
  • Keep antibiotics to yourself. Don’t share your medication with others, and don’t take antibiotics prescribed for someone else. Different antibiotics are used to treat different infections. Taking the wrong one will either have no effect on the infection you have or could even cause harm. This is another habit that can contribute to antibiotic resistance.
  • Don’t store away antibiotics. If you’re told by your provider to stop taking an antibiotic while you still have some left, discard the rest of the medication. The same goes for if you never start taking a prescribed antibiotic in the first place. It’s important that you be seen by a medical provider for an accurate diagnosis when you’re sick. Taking an antibiotic you had on hand, without consulting a provider, is a bad idea for the reasons outlined above.

The bottom line? Only take antibiotics when prescribed by a medical provider for a bacterial infection. Your health will thank you.

Learn more

Feeling under the weather? Your primary care provider can provide you with a diagnosis and treatment plan. Find a provider here.