CareNow® - February 22, 2024

Antibiotics have changed the way we treat so many bacterial infections. In fact, either you or someone in your family has likely been prescribed an antibiotic to help fight off an illness. From strep throat to sinus infections to ear infections, this medication can help reduce the length of symptoms and get you back to feeling like yourself quickly.

If you’re curious about how antibiotics actually work and when you might benefit from taking them, keep reading. We’re breaking down everything you need to know about antibiotics, including when they don’t work.

How Do Antibiotics Work?

Antibiotics are like warriors that battle bacteria in your body. Here's a simple breakdown of how they work:

  1. Wall breakers: Imagine bacteria having a protective wall. Antibiotics like penicillins and cephalosporins act like wrecking balls, smashing that wall and causing the bacteria to burst.
  2. Protein interference: Bacteria need proteins to survive and grow. Antibiotics such as tetracyclines and macrolides disrupt the production of these proteins, essentially throwing a wrench into the bacteria's machinery.
  3. DNA/RNA blockers: Some antibiotics, like fluoroquinolones, target the genetic material (DNA or RNA) of bacteria. The bacteria can't replicate or survive without their genetic instructions.
  4. Metabolic roadblocks: Bacteria run on specific pathways for energy. Antibiotics like sulfonamides create roadblocks in these pathways, cutting off their energy supply and hindering bacterial survival.

What Are Antibiotics For?

Antibiotics are medications designed to combat bacterial infections by either killing the bacteria or inhibiting their growth. They specifically target bacteria and aren't effective against viruses.

Overuse or misuse of antibiotics can contribute to antibiotic resistance for not only yourself but for the larger community as well so it's important that you use them only when necessary.

Antibiotics should only be taken as prescribed by a healthcare professional, and the full course should be completed even if symptoms improve so that the medication can fully take effect.

How Long Does It Take Antibiotics to Work?

In most cases, antibiotics will begin to take effect as soon as you start taking them. However, you might not experience relief for up to three days. The length of time it takes for antibiotics to begin working depends heavily on the type of infection you’re treating.

While you may begin feeling better within a few days of taking medication, you should always complete the entire prescribed dosage to guarantee your infection resolves completely. If you feel you need to stop taking your antibiotics for any reason, consult with your medical provider.

Do Antibiotics Work for Upper Respiratory Infections?

Antibiotics are effective against bacterial infections, not viral ones. While they can be prescribed for bacterial infections like strep throat, ear infections, and bacterial sinus infections, they are completely ineffective against viruses. Most upper respiratory infections, including coughs, colds, sore throats, bronchitis and sinus infections, are viral. If you suspect a viral infection, consult a medical provider for guidance on symptom relief.

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Are There Side Effects From Antibiotics?

It’s unlikely you will experience severe side effects from antibiotics, but you should be aware they do exist. The most common side effect is an upset stomach, which can include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and cramps. Less commonly, you can develop an intestinal infection, c diff colitis, which can also lead to diarrhea, but will itself require antibiotics to treat. To minimize these side effects, you should take antibiotics with food.

When Do I Need Antibiotics?

Determining the need for antibiotics involves having a medical provider diagnose the infection as one caused by bacteria. Common scenarios where antibiotics may be needed include:

Strep throat: Antibiotics like penicillin or amoxicillin are often prescribed for strep throat to eradicate the bacterial infection. The primary reason it’s important to treat with antibiotics is not for the throat infection and pain, but to prevent secondary complications to your heart (rheumatic fever) and kidneys.

Urinary tract infections (UTIs): Certain antibiotics are effective against bacteria-causing UTIs. However, not all UTIs require antibiotic treatment, and milder cases may resolve on their own.

Bacterial infections: Antibiotics are essential for other bacterial infections, including lung infections, skin infections, and certain ear infections.

Dental infections: Infections in the teeth or gums caused by bacteria may require antibiotics. Getting regular dental care is crucial to preventing infections.

Do I Need Antibiotics for a Sinus Infection?

Sinus infections, also known as sinusitis, may or may not require antibiotics. . Most sinus infections are viral, however if your sinus symptoms persist beyond 2 weeks, a course of antibiotics may be warranted.

When To Take Antibiotics for a Cold

Colds are typically caused by viruses, and as we've discussed, antibiotics are ineffective against viral infections. Antibiotics are not routinely prescribed for the common cold. However, being sick with a cold may make you susceptible to a secondary bacterial infection, in which case, antibiotics may need to be considered.

Antibiotics Come in Liquid Form

The form in which antibiotics are administered can vary, and some antibiotics come in liquid form. No matter what form of antibiotics you get, it's key to follow the prescribed dosage and guidelines so that the treatment is effective.

Your medical provider may prescribe your child liquid antibiotics if they are too young to swallow pills. It can also be prescribed for adults who are unable to swallow pills.

Antibiotics are powerful medications that play a vital role in treating bacterial infections. However, you should always use them responsibly to prevent antibiotic resistance and make them as effective as possible.

If you suspect you or a family member is suffering from an infection of some sort, seeing a medical provider as soon as possible is key to getting a quick diagnosis and treatment plan. With more than 225 locations throughout the country, most open after hours and on the weekend, CareNow® can provide you with care that’s high quality and convenient.

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