When and Why to Take Antibiotics
The misuse of antibiotics has led to medication-resistant germs — here’s what you can do to help
Since 1928, when Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, antibiotics have saved millions of lives. Also known as antimicrobials, these powerful drugs target the bacteria that cause infectious diseases.
However, antibiotics have been used for so long — and for so many unwarranted conditions — that infectious organisms are developing a resistance to them. As a result, the drugs are potentially less effective.
- Most patients who receive antibiotics — some 80 percent — are outpatients who’ve visited doctor’s offices, urgent care clinics or emergency departments for an illness. However, 30 percent of these patients did not need antibiotics.
- Studies have found that 50 percent of outpatients who’re taking antibiotics for respiratory infections don’t need them. That’s because viruses — not bacteria — cause many respiratory diseases like the cold or flu. Antibiotic medicines won’t help you feel better.
- Reactions to antibiotics are among the three drug classifications that most often lead to emergency room visits and the leading cause of medication-related of ER visits for children.
Why should you care?
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that drug-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 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 an over-the-counter treatment 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 vaccines.
- CDC: Do I really need ABX (PDF)
- CDC: Antibiotics Aren’t Always the Answer. (PDF)
- Choosing Wisely: Antibiotics for a sore throat, cough, or runny nose (PDF)
- Quality Insights: Video
- Conversations for Health: Video Tool
- CDC: Outpatient Stewardship
- CDC: National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria