Antibiotics are deadly to bacteria, but they won’t kill a virus

When you’re sick, antibiotics may seem like the quickest path toward feeling better but getting a prescription when you don’t need it actually causes more harm than good.

Antibiotics are meant to fight bacteria, but unfortunately, they do nothing to kill a virus.

“It’s frustrating that we don’t have better drugs for viral infections,” said Dr. Jason Bowling, an infectious disease specialist at University Health System and the director of Hospital Epidemiology in the Division of Infectious Diseases. “Healthy people get viral infections, like colds, all the time. But an antibiotic won’t relieve your symptoms or help you get over it sooner.”

Why should you take all of your antibiotics?

Taking an unnecessary antibiotic will, however, contribute to creating more drug-resistant bacteria. Even taking an antibiotic to treat a bacterial infection can result in drug resistance if the patient doesn’t finish the entire course of medication, which usually happens because the person starts feeling better and thinks they should stop antibiotics.

When this happens, any bacteria that aren’t killed become stronger. The bacteria are more likely to survive another round of that particular antibiotic in the future. If you get this infection again and regular antibiotics can no longer fight the bacteria, it’s even possible you could end up in the hospital with a pricy medical bill because the germs are much harder to kill. Worse, more than 20,000 people in the U.S. with antibiotic-resistant infections die every year because there aren’t any drugs powerful enough to kill the bacteria.

Preventing drug resistance

Patients often insist on getting a prescription when they go to the doctor’s office, whether they actually need it or not. And sometimes doctors, for the sake of efficiency, don’t take the time to educate the patient about drug-resistant bacteria and instead just give the Rx. Other times, doctors may give an antibiotic to ensure they didn’t miss something in the brief appointment slot they have scheduled for each patient.

Bowling emphasizes that while doctors need to be more reluctant to write scripts, they also need their patients’ trust to help fight drug resistance. For example, Bowling says, patients should be willing to accept their physician’s advice to wait out a viral infection, but if symptoms don’t improve or if lab results reveal a problem, they would be able to call the doctor’s office back. Viral infections can turn into bacterial infections, in which case the patient can request an antibiotic without having to return for a follow-up appointment.

The current problem is that healthcare in the U.S. has gravitated toward convenience rather than ongoing relationships with primary care physicians.

“It’s harder to call a random health clinic back and get the same doctor who treated you,” Bowling said. “It’s easier for the doctor to prescribe an antibiotic in that case. But with a primary care physician, the patient can call back and the doctor can make adjustments.”

Bowling is encouraged to see pediatricians and adult physicians becoming more cautious about prescribing antibiotics. He says patients are beginning to understand why it’s important to use antibiotics only when they’re necessary—both for their own well-being and for the health of society-at-large.

When you get an antibiotic

Antibiotics fight not only the bacteria making you sick but also the ones that keep you healthy. In fact, there are more beneficial bacteria in our intestines than there are cells in our body. So when you take an antibiotic, it can disrupt the healthy biome inside you because it kills the healthy flora along with the germs. This can cause nausea or diarrhea, but a probiotic may help.

Other important things to know before you take an antibiotic:

  • Make sure your doctor is aware of any other medications or supplements you’re taking. Some medications, like birth control, may not work reliably when taken with an antibiotic.
  • Take the antibiotics exactly as the doctor prescribes them—for example, with or without a meal, at the same time every day, etc.—and for as long as prescribed.
  • If any medication is left over at the end of the course, throw it away in the garbage, not down the drain, which can contribute to resistance.

Want to learn more about antibiotics? We have a collection of articles in our online health library.