Here’s the situation: you’ve come down with an infection or a cold, and you go to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription for an antibiotic. The medication you receive has a long history of development and testing, and often comes with a book of instructions or guidelines from your pharmacist. But few people pay any attention to it, which presents dangerous possibilities, including antibiotic resistance. 

According to the CDC, more than 35,000 people die annually in the U.S. as a result of contracting antibiotic-resistant bacteria or fungi. The CDC calls antibiotic resistance a major threat to public health, yet there isn’t much general conversation about the issue. Here are some things you should know about antibiotics to help yourself and those around you avoid antibiotic resistance. 

What are antibiotics? 

Antibiotics are drugs used to reduce illness and death from infectious diseases caused by bacteria. They attack the germs that cause these diseases and either kill them or make it harder for them to grow. 

Here’s a short history lesson: The first commercialized and widely used antibiotic, penicillin, was extremely successful in treating many infections. However, as the use of penicillin increased, so did signs and prevalence of antibiotic resistance. Germs started sharing their methods for resisting penicillin with each other, and it became harder to fight infections with that particular antibiotic.

What is antibiotic resistance? 

As the history of penicillin shows, germs are always going to look for ways to survive our attempts to kill them. Adapting to survive antibiotics is one of the ways they do so. Antibiotic resistance happens when germs like bacteria and fungi develop the ability to defeat the drugs designed to kill them. Infections that develop antibiotic resistance become difficult, and sometimes impossible, to treat, and can result in hospital stays and additional money spent on extra doctor’s visits and treatments. 

When should antibiotics be prescribed? 

Antibiotics are used to fight certain infections, but not every common illness. Most commonly, they are used to fight bacterial infections, like strep throat, whooping cough, urinary tract infection, and sepsis. Antibiotics are not used to treat viruses. This includes the common cold and chest colds, sore throat, sinus infection and flu. Antibiotics should not be prescribed unless needed. This is because they may cause unpleasant side effects and can also lead to antibiotic resistance. It can be dangerous if a doctor prescribes the wrong antibiotic or at the wrong dose or for the wrong length of time. Remember: you have control over your treatment, and if you feel uncomfortable with a prescription, let your doctor know. 

How can I take antibiotics properly? 

Whether it’s in the form of a pamphlet or directions from your pharmacist, antibiotics come with a long list of warnings and recommendations. It’s important to heed this expert advice, but here are some general tips: 

  • Take antibiotics exactly as prescribed by your doctor

  • Pay close attention to delivery timelines and dosage. 

  • Be sure to complete the treatment process your doctor plans for you. 

  • Do not share your antibiotics with others. 

  • Check with your pharmacist about how to discard leftover pills safely.

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