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“Should I take an antibiotic for this?” is the question almost all of us have uttered at one point or another in our lives. It’s no doubt that antibiotics save lives—but are they always necessary? And if you take them, are they doing more harm than good?

The CDC recently released information about antibiotic use. It even started a Twitter campaign recently with its #BeAntibioticAware hashtag. But the concern is not new. In fact, Alexander Fleming, who first discovered penicillin, even mentioned it when he received the Nobel prize in 1946 during his acceptance speech. There are reasons to be concerned, pros and cons of antibiotic use, and definitely the right way and the wrong way to use them.

Real Cause for Concern

So why is the CDC concerned? The increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria (MRSA, etc.) due to its misuse could cause concern especially in the instance of a potentially wide outbreak of illness, although luckily, antibiotic resistance is not considered to be an epidemic yet. This is thanks in part to a presidential executive order in 2014 that created a task force to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Studies say that half of all antibiotics prescribed to children and adults are for upper-respiratory symptoms from the common cold—a virus that antibiotics have no effect upon. So, many times, physicians are at fault. Vincent M. PedreIII, MD, FMCP, author of Happy Gut, says that unfortunately, most patients believe that antibiotics will help their illness and many doctors feel pressure to please their patients.

Sachin Gupta MD, FCCP an Intensive Care Unit physician and Pulmonary specialist at Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco notes the mistakes that physicians can make, including “over prescription, selection of the wrong antibiotic due to missing history of prior infections, [and] not appreciating the severity of the infection or understanding patient-specific risk factors.” Much is being done, though, to educate doctors around the world about antibiotic use, which should not be taken lightly for a variety of reasons.

Antibiotic Use Sadly Has a Price

Antibiotics save lives, but they do have side-effects and potentially serious consequences. “As doctors, we need to realize that with any medication (including antibiotics) we prescribe, unintended side-effects can result,” says Perelli.

Antibiotics don’t discriminate—they kill bacteria throughout your entire body. Dr. Christian Whitney, DO, a board-certified Anesthesiologist and Pain Management Consultant points out that antibiotics can also destroy the “good bacteria” in your gastrointestinal tract, creating a host of stomach issues, including one of the worst offenders, Clostridium Difficile, or c.Diff. “With antibiotics, studies have shown they can wipe out the microbiome in the gut for up to 12 months. We are seeing a rise of patients with digestive disorders and related health conditions (like asthma, allergies, and autoimmune disease), which are influenced by this wipe out of the microbiome,” warns Pedrelli.

Another dangerous side of antibiotic overuse is the creation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which is cause alone to be overly cautious about its use.

What does antibiotic resistance mean?

Simply put, taking antibiotics for the wrong reason or not as prescribed, can create an antibiotic-resistant bug. “Bacteria are always looking for ways to resist the antibiotics we prescribe. In fact, simply using antibiotics creates resistance, which is why antibiotics should only be used to treat bacterial infections.,” says Whitney.

Pedrelli warns that they are seeing the rise of antibiotic superbugs, not only in the hospital, but also in many community settings. But how do these bugs become resistant?

Gupta explains that bacteria become resistant through mutation. When a patient does not complete a course of antibiotic, and thus the bacteria is not killed completely, the remaining bacteria can mutate and become resistant. When the bacteria comes back to make the patient sick again, it is suddenly resistant to the same antibiotic which was used previously to treat the infection.

When should I use antibiotics, and how?

The CDC released a helpful and easy-to-read guide that will tell you if antibiotics may be appropriate. If you do need antibiotics for a genuine infection, there are some rules to follow.

  • Be sure to tell your physician if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Whitney says that “antibiotics may be transmitted to the fetus and cause harm.”
  • Finish the entire course as prescribed. Gupta says it’s crucial that you take the medication as prescribed, including the timing and dosage as it reads on the label.
  • Never use leftover antibiotics for a new illness. “The use of antibiotics in this fashion can select for resistant bacteria and may not even cover the infection as different antibiotics are needed for different pathogens,” says Whitney .
  • Follow label warnings. Gupta says it is important to note whether you should be taking the medication on an empty stomach, with food, or without dairy, for instance. Effectiveness of the antibiotic and also gut health are at stake.

Antibiotics are wonderful things—when you take them the right way and for the right reasons. If you have a virus, the best advice these doctors give is to drink plenty of fluids, treat the symptoms, and get rest. It is always best to consult with your doctor if you have any questions about whether antibiotics are necessary for your situation.