How You Can Avoid Needing Antibiotics

Antibiotics changed the world. Bacteria used to make a simple cut turn deadly. Infections - like Strep Throat - once commonly led to lifelong medical problems, but now rarely do. Antibiotics treat and save lives from many diseases daily - like pneumonia and meningitis. Infections used to be common and un-treatable like urinary tract infections, osteomyelitis, and cellulitis.These now respond rapidly melt away with antibiotics.

The problem is: what happens if we use antibiotics. The more we use and misuse antibiotics, the more we risk not having any antibiotics left working. In particular, if antibiotics are not taken for the full course or are taken at too low a dose, the bacteria, always mutating, can have strains selected out which will not be stopped antibiotics. As a result, antibiotics that once worked against infections no longer do. We risk reaching a "Post-Antibiotic" era if we aren't careful with the antibiotics we do have (and invest in making new antibiotics for those we've lost).

How can you avoid antibiotics you don't need?

There are many ways to avoid needing - or using - antibiotics.

  1. Only use antibiotics that were prescribed. Antibiotics need to be targeted at an infection. Using any old antibiotic won't do. It has to be the right antibiotic - if an antibiotic would help at all. It might be that the infection you have is caused by a virus - or a parasite or fungus - that won't respond to antibiotic. Your doctor, or another health provider, will best know when you need an antibiotic - and which one you should use.
  1. Vaccinate. There are vaccines that prevent bacterial infections - like a common cause of pneumonia and a couple common causes of meningitis, as well as for bacterial infections we think are uncommon, but would be common again if we didn't vaccinate - like tetanus and diphtheria.
    Vaccines also protect against viral infections which can predispose us to bacterial infections that would need antibiotics. This can mean preventing the flu, which can predispose us to bacterial pneumonia, or varicella (chickenpox) or zoster (shingles) which can lead to pneumonia or skin infections.
  1. Use good hand hygiene Washing your hands can prevent a lot of infections. It's not just vomiting and diarrhea bugs, but many respiratory bugs as well - both viral and bacterial.
  2. Use good cough hygiene Coughing into a (disposable) tissue or the elbow of your sleeve can keep bugs from spreading to others. It's a nice thing to do. Standing back 3-6 feet from anyone who is coughing or sneezing can help you from getting sick. Also being careful not to touch things someone sick has touched, like say a doorknob they touched after sneezing into their hands, will help keep you well.

So just to be clear, are antibiotics only given to treat bacterial infections?

Almost always. This is almost always the rule. Antibiotics are for treatment of bacterial infections.

There are, however, a few times when antibiotics might be taken - but not to treat a bacterial infection.

  1. Some antibiotics, in very specific cases, antibiotics can work on infections that aren't bacterial. Sometimes, there are unusual exceptions; antibiotics can work against some bugs that aren't bacteria - such as parasites - like metronidazole/flagyl against giardia and trichomonas; other antibiotics have some effect against malaria. But this is pretty rare - and rarely an issue.
  1. Sometimes antibiotics prevent infections from spreading an infection to others. Taking antibiotics for pertussis (Whooping Cough) may not make you feel any better, but it cuts the chance you'll spread the infection. Sometimes people advocate for the use of antibiotics to reduce transmission of cholera as well, though we don't know yet how well this might work.
  2. Sometimes antibiotics are taken when there is no infection - yet. Antibiotics are often taken prophylactically - to avoid getting an infection - in very specific situations. This might be used with contacts of a dangerous infection - like bacterial meningitis. This is also used in those who are vulnerable to an infection - like those who are immunocompromised from HIV or from medications, like immunosuppressives, including prednisone. Prophylaxis is also used when women, known to carry Group B Strep, are giving birth - to reduce the chance their babies will be infected by a bacteria that causes no harm to mom.