Antibiotics are most commonly used to treat bacterial infections. Appropriately used, they significantly shorten the duration and severity of disease, and have dramatically helped increase life expectancy in the last century. However, antibiotic use is not without risks. These include (but are not limited to):
- Allergic Reactions: Allergic reactions such as hives (see picture) and swelling of the throat, known as anaphylaxis. This reaction can be sudden and life threatening, requiring aggressive treatment with epinephrine and anti-inflammatory steroids.
- Other Reactions: Non allergic reactions, including vaginal yeast infections and diarrhea. Yeast infections typically respond to over-the-counter medications, and diarrhea usually resolves once the antibiotic is stopped. Live culture yogurt and/or a medication such as Imodium can be used during treatment to decrease symptoms. Some diarrhea is infectious (such as C. difficile) and must be treated with a special antibiotic.
- Unnecessary Treatment: Despite the benefit that antibiotics provide, they are not a “cure all” for every ailment. Though some symptoms are caused by bacteria and are usually treatable with antibiotics (such as a urinary tract infection or a sinus infection), many afflictions (such as influenza and the common cold) are viral in nature and will not respond to antibiotics. It is crucial to discuss with your physician before starting an antibiotic to determine whether or not it is suited to treat your symptoms.
- Superbugs: Development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, often referred to as “superbugs”, can result from overuse of antibiotics. These mutated bacteria are harder to treat, requiring stronger and more expensive antibiotics, often in various combinations. Examples of this include MRSA staph, also known as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. For more information on MRSA, you can read our previous article entitled What is MRSA?
It is therefore critically important to take antibiotics only when absolutely necessary. Do not take them without consulting and being examined first by your health care provider.