When and Why to Take Antibiotics
The overuse and misuse of antibiotics has led to antibiotic-resistant germs — here’s what you can do to help.
Since 1928, when Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, antibiotics have saved millions of lives. These powerful drugs target and kill bacteria, which is why antibiotics can be used to treat infections caused by bacteria.
However, antibiotics have been used for so long — and for so many unnecessary conditions (including infections caused by viruses) — that bacteria are becoming antibiotic-resistant. As a result, the most effective, safest drugs are now less effective, causing patients to need antibiotics that kill a wider range of bacteria, potentially have more side effects, may not work as well, and cost more. In some cases – that thankfully are rare, so far – there may be no effective antibiotics to treat someone’s infection. We must all therefore do our part to use antibiotics appropriately so we can make sure antibiotics can be used to treat bacterial infections when antibiotics are needed.
Did you know?
- Eighty percent of all antibiotic use occurs in outpatients. This includes patients who have visited doctor’s offices, urgent care clinics or emergency departments for an illness. And importantly, 30 percent of these patients did not need antibiotics.
- Studies have found that 50 percent of outpatients who are taking antibiotics for respiratory infections don’t need them. That’s because viruses — not bacteria — cause many respiratory infections like the cold or flu. Antibiotic medicines won’t help you feel better if you have a virus.
- Reactions to antibiotics are among the most common drugs that cause emergency room visits and are the leading cause of medication-related emergency department visits for children.
Why should you care?
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that antibiotic-resistant bacteria cause two million illnesses and about 23,000 deaths each year in the United States alone.
- Resistance to antibiotics is one of the most serious public health problems in the United States.
- You won’t get any better by taking an antibiotic if a virus is causing your illness. What’s more, you could experience side effects from antibiotics.
- Over-the-counter medications might control your symptoms more effectively.
What can you do?
In 2015, the White House issued the “National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria” to reduce inappropriate outpatient use by 50 percent by 2020.
To do your part:
- Educate yourself. Learn more about conditions that don’t require an antibiotic.
- Ask your doctor if you truly need antibiotics.
- Talk to your doctor and pharmacist about over-the-counter treatments that can control your symptoms.
- If you do need antibiotics, take them exactly as prescribed.
- See your provider if a condition persists with or without antibiotics.
- Stay healthy by washing your hands, covering your mouth when you cough, staying home when you’re sick, and getting appropriate vaccines.
- CDC: Do I really need ABX (PDF)
- CDC: Viruses or Bacteria: What’s got you sick? (PDF)
- CDC: Antibiotics Aren’t Always the Answer. (PDF)
- Choosing Wisely: Antibiotics for a sore throat, cough, or runny nose (PDF)
- Quality Insights: Antibiotics: the Right Tool for the Right Problem
- Conversations for Health: The Primary Care Office Visit: Role play video tool
- CDC: Outpatient Stewardship
- CDC: National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria