6 smart facts about antibiotics

You may think of antibiotics as safe, harmless drugs with no potential for serious effects. Usually antibiotics are well tolerated and safe. But serious side effects are possible and dangerous, though rare.

white and black medicine capsules

Antibiotics save lives.

“The discovery of penicillin in 1928 by Alexander Fleming was one of the greatest scientific achievements of the 20th century. It’s hard to imagine a world before the development of what many consider to be miracle drugs; however, just 90 years ago antibiotics weren’t available.”

CDC website

Prior to the discovery of penicillin, infectious diseases frequently caused death, probably the most common cause prior to the mid-20th century.  Now they have been surpassed by heart disease, cancer and trauma.

We are less likely to from an infectious disease because of immunization, improved hygiene, sanitation, safe food and water, improved nutrition, and antibiotics. However, changes in our environment and genetic changes in bacteria and viruses create opportunity for infectious diseases to become new and deadly threats.

digitally colorized photomicrograph, of a number of Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria
This digitally colorized photomicrograph, reveals the presence of a number of Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria in cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) after the patient had begun treatment with 5 units of penicillin. public domain courtesy CDC/ Dr. M.S. Mitchell

Antibiotics are used to treat infections caused by bacteria.

In a broad sense, the word antibiotic could refer to any drug that kills or stops germs, or in other words, organisms that cause disease. But we usually reserve it to refer to bacteria type organisms. There are many families of bacteria; two of the most common are the Streptococci, or Strep and the Staphylococci, or Staph (pronounced staff). There are different drugs that work on other infections caused by viruses, fungus, and parasites.

Prevalence of High Level Penicillin Resistance in Streptococcus pneumoniae, United States.
This image was produced, by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 1997, It lists the percentages of penicillin resistant S. pneumoniae infections, during 1987, 1991, and 1993-94, based on data collected by both the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), The Journal of Infectious Diseases. Note how over this 8-year period, there was a steady increase in the occurrence of high level penicillin resistance. public domain

Ear infections may or may not need treatment with an antibiotic.

Ten years ago we thought all ear infections must be treated with antibiotics. Now we know that some resolve spontaneously, so antibiotic prescribing is not automatic. In some circumstances, they are still recommended

  • Infants less than 6 months old
  • Toddlers under 2 years old with both ears infected
  • A ruptured ear drum (perforated tympanic membrane) with pus draining

In other cases, it may be safe to wait 2-3 days before giving an antibiotic if symptoms have not resolved.

6 smart facts about antibiotic use
graphic created by the Centers for Disease Control, http://www.cdc.gov

A sore throat usually gets better without an antibiotic.

Unless it is due to an infection with the Streptococcus bacteria, “Strep throat”. Greater than 90% of sore throats are caused by viruses, including those which cause colds and influenza. Mono, the “kissing disease”, (infectious mononucleosis) is also caused by a virus called Epstein-Barr. None of these are treatable with antibiotics, although influenza symptoms can be lessened with an anti-viral drug.

Strep throat is usually treated with penicillin but symptoms may not get better any faster than without. The goal in using an antibiotic is to prevent rheumatic fever, a complication of strep which is now rare in the United States.

a man taking his temperature
Photo credit Lauren Bishop-CDC/ National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases (NCEZID)

 The color of mucus, pus, or drainage does not determine the need for an antibiotic.

Some infections may cause characteristic colors or odors, but that alone is not used to diagnose or treat bacteria. If there is pus or other drainage, a sample may be collected and sent to a lab for a culture- attempting to grow any bacteria present. Sometimes this is misleading, since our bodies harbor lots of bacteria normally.

a woman taking her temperature
This photograph depicted a woman who was using a modern, battery-powered oral thermometer, in order to measure her body temperature. In order to return an accurate reading, this particular type of thermometer needed to be placed beneath the user’s tongue, for a set amount of time, beeping when the ambient, sublingual temperature was reached. Photo credit-James Gathany, CDC, public domain

Like all drugs, antibiotics have potential risks.

You may think of antibiotics as safe, harmless drugs with no potential for serious effects.  Usually antibiotics are well tolerated and safe. But serious side effects are possible and dangerous, though rare.

Here are some of the potential serious risks of popular frequently used antibiotics

  • Penicillin- anemia (loss of red blood cells), injury to kidneys and nerves
  • Cephalexin- seizures, liver problems leading to yellow jaundice
  • Sulfa- increased sensitivity to sunlight, inflammation of the pancreas
  • Azithromycin (Z-Pak) irregular heart rhythm, injury to liver and pancreas
  • Ciprofloxacin- seizures, depression, rupture of tendons

exploring the HEART of using antibiotics wisely

Author: Aletha Cress Oglesby, M.D.

As a family physician, I explore the HEART of HEALTH in my work, recreation, community, and through writing. My blog, Watercress Words, informs and inspires us to live in health. I believe we can turn our health challenges into healthy opportunities. When we do, we can share the HEART of health with our families, communities, and the world. Come explore and share with me.

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