Antibiotics for Treating Infections

Have you ever wondered what antibiotics are? Have you ever wondered how they work? These “miracle drugs” were a big breakthrough of the 20th century. They let many people live. There were many fewer deaths from infectious diseases.

Scientist illustrating antibiotic chemical formula with a marker on a clear screen facing the camera
Andrew Brookes / Getty Images

There are, however, misconceptions about antibiotics. One common misconception is that you should take antibiotics until you feel better. Many, wrongly, believe they can stop antibiotics when they feel better, even if their doctor had asked them to take the antibiotic for longer. Did you know that by not following doctors’ orders on antibiotic prescriptions, you could end up with even greater health problems than what you began with?

There are now bacteria that resist antibiotics. These are called antibiotic-resistant bacteria because the drugs no longer stop these bacteria (or don't stop them quick enough). This is very dangerous for all of us. It can be scary. It is important that everyone understands how antibiotics work. We should work together to clear up any misconceptions about antibiotics. If we let these misconceptions continue, many people can get sick from drug-resistant bacteria. There may not be the drugs to treat these bacteria.

Listed below are several important points that we all should consider before starting any antibiotic treatment.

What Are Antibiotics?

Antibiotics are medications that kill or stop the growth of bacteria. They do this by blocking important functions within the bacteria cell. These drugs include topical over-the-counter antibiotic creams and ointments that you spread over your skin. They also include pills you swallow and intravenous solutions that are injected into your vein. These drugs stop minor bacterial infections, as well as life-threatening system-wide infections.

There are many types of antibiotics, which can be used topically (on the skin, like an ointment), orally (pills for adults or liquid for kids to swallow), or intravenously. Each antibiotic kills different groups of bacteria.

Early antibiotics were discovered and isolated from molds. Molds can be dangerous. Many infections are caused by molds and different types of fungi. In this case, though, molds were very useful.

These antibiotic molecules were produced by the molds to be used as a defense against bacteria. We "stole" these from the molds and started to treat infections with these. More recently, newer classes of antibiotics have been created in laboratories. Because the targets of antibiotics are (often) specific to bacterial rather than human cells, they generally have few side effects and are considered safe for the vast majority of people.

Side Effects

While antibiotics are safe for most people, a small number of people are prone to allergic reactions. These allergic reactions can be to penicillin or other antibiotics (like Bactrim or Cotrim). Symptoms include rash, throat tightening or swelling, difficulty breathing, swollen lips, a rash or hives, gastrointestinal problems, light-headedness, loss of consciousness, and low blood pressure. In rare cases, people can die from allergies. If you suspect you have an allergy to an antibiotic, immediately stop using it and contact your physician or healthcare provider.

Other common side effects of antibiotics may include diarrhea and yeast infections. These occur because antibiotics can affect the natural balance of the bacteria that are part of our microbiome. There have been many studies looking at how to preserve or replace good bacteria, and few have shown that probiotics can help with anything other than C.difficile; further research needs to be done in this area.

Antibiotics can interfere with birth control, and decrease efficacy, so it's important to talk to your doctor before taking them.

Drug resistance can also develop. This can happen when people take antibiotics "just in case" like when they are traveling and develop a bit of diarrhea, but are not sick. It can also happen when drug use isn't monitored when people have to take antibiotics for a long time. The resistances that develop may initially be found in hospitals, but later spread out into the community. The result can be antibiotic resistances accumulating that we don't have good antibiotics to treat.

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  • Antibiotics. Medline Plus. US National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health.