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When to Take an Antibiotic and When to Avoid It

Antibiotics save lives and are critical tools for treating a number of infections. Unfortunately, at least 30 percent of the antibiotics used in outpatient settings are prescribed unnecessarily, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Each year in the U.S., at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die as a direct result. Many more die from complications from antibiotic-resistant infections.

Here’s what you need to know to safely use antibiotics and help prevent antibiotic resistance.

What Are Antibiotics?

Antibiotics are medicines that help stop infections caused by bacteria. They do this by killing the bacteria or by keeping the bacteria from reproducing.

What is Antibiotic Resistance?

Antibiotic resistance occurs when germs like bacteria and fungi develop the ability to survive the drugs designed to kill them. Infections caused by antibiotic-resistant germs are extremely dangerous because they are difficult, and sometimes impossible, to treat.

Antibiotic resistance has existed since the invention of antibiotics. Germs are always looking for ways to survive their environment, including adapting to survive antibiotic medications. Unfortunately, the more antibiotics are over-prescribed, the more germs adapt to fight them. The only way to stem the very large risk of antibiotic resistant infections is to only use antibiotics when absolutely necessary.

When Can Antibiotics Be Safely Used?

The best way to understand how to use antibiotics is to understand when they should NOT be used.

The CDC strongly states that antibiotics do not work on viruses, such as those that cause colds, flu, bronchitis, or runny noses, even if the mucus is thick, yellow, or green. Antibiotics will not make you feel better if you have a virus. Respiratory viruses usually go away within a week or two without treatment.

Antibiotics are only needed for treating infections caused by bacteria, but even some bacterial infections get better without antibiotics, including many sinus infections and some ear infections.

Antibiotics are critical tools for treating a number of more serious but common infections, such as pneumonia, and for life-threatening conditions including sepsis.

If you do need antibiotics, take them exactly as prescribed. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if there is any reason why you should stop taking your antibiotic instead of finishing the full prescribed amount. And never save or share your antibiotic with another person.

Working together, we can help to lower the risk of antibiotic resistant infections.

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