With winter around the corner and the cold and flu season upon us, you may soon find yourself at the doctor’s office, looking for a prescription to help you feel better. How does your doctor decide whether to prescribe antibiotics, and how do they work, exactly? Since this week is Antibiotic Awareness Week, we spoke with members of the Antimicrobial Stewardship Team at Sunnybrook to learn more. Here are four things you might not have known about antibiotics:
1) Antibiotics fight bacteria, not viruses
Antibiotics are medications that fight bacteria, either by killing them or stopping them from multiplying. However, their usefulness is limited to bacterial infections. “Antibiotics do not treat infections caused by a virus or fungus,” says Jennifer Lo, Antimicrobial Stewardship Pharmacist at Sunnybrook. So while you’ll likely be prescribed antibiotics if you have a bacterial infection like pneumonia, you won’t get antibiotics if you’re suffering from the common cold, a viral illness.
2) Take antibiotics exactly as prescribed – global health depends on it!
Most bacterial infections can be treated with a short duration of antibiotics. It’s important to follow your care provider’s instructions and finish the entire course of treatment, even if you start feeling better. And if you aren’t prescribed antibiotics at all, don’t just take them anyways! Using antibiotics inappropriately can lead to bacteria becoming antibiotic resistant, meaning that antibiotics stop working altogether. “Without effective antibiotics, infections can result in longer illnesses and more deaths. Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health today,” says Dr. Jerome Leis, staff physician, general internal medicine and infectious diseases at Sunnybrook.
3) Stronger doesn’t always mean better
Because there are so many different types of bacteria, there are also many different types of antibiotics. Antibiotics that can treat a wider variety of bacteria are sometimes thought to be ‘stronger’ than other antibiotics, but they aren’t appropriate for every infection. In fact, “they may increase the chances of having unwanted side effects and developing antimicrobial resistance,” says Michael Wan, Antimicrobial Stewardship Pharmacist at Sunnybrook.
4) You may encounter some side effects
If you’re taking antibiotics for a bacterial infection, you may encounter side effects that can sometimes be unpleasant. The most common side effects of antibiotics affect the digestive system, including nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping and mild diarrhea. Antibiotics (especially those that treat a wide variety of bacteria) can also lead to overgrowth of other organisms, leading to yeast infections or Clostridium difficile (or C. diff), a potentially serious form of diarrhea.