5 Things To Ask Yourself Before Taking Antibiotics

Written by Denise Pate, M.D.

Photo by Marko Milovanović

It's fall, and that means sore throats, sniffles, and coughing. No matter how much work we do to supercharge our immune system and wash our hands to prevent germs, sometimes we simply catch the bug that's going around the office or school. Hopefully, a quick seasonal cold virus is the extent of it, but we all know that sometimes unpleasant symptoms can hang around and we worry it's a bacterial infection. If that happens, here are five questions you should ask yourself before you fill that antibiotic prescription:

1. Is this antibiotic necessary?

Antibiotics are medicines that are used to treat bacterial infections only. Antibiotics do not fight infections caused by viruses like colds, flu, some sore throats, and sinus or ear infections. These infections can get better without antibiotics, and instead, symptom relief is the best treatment, and the use of antibiotics may cause unnecessary side effects. Many times people are looking for a quick fix to an illness that cannot be fixed by antibiotics. You should not demand antibiotics when your health care provider says that they are not indicated, and never take antibiotics that were prescribed for someone else because this may not be the appropriate form of treatment and may delay the time it takes to diagnose your real illness.

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2. Do I know what side effects to expect?

Once it has been established that an antibiotic is indicated for your illness, it's important to be aware of potential side effects that can occur with taking the antibiotic. Antibiotics are extremely helpful drugs, but they are not without their drawbacks—which is another reason you should make sure they are completely necessary. One common side effect is antibiotic-associated diarrhea, which means loose or watery bowel movements during the course of the treatment. Typically, antibiotic-associated diarrhea will be mild and requires no treatment; it will usually stop within a couple of days of completing the course. It is thought that antibiotic-associated diarrhea comes from upsetting the balance of bacteria that normally exists in the gastrointestinal tract. There is a more severe and complicated type of bacterial infection called Clostridium difficile (C.diff) that can occur after antibiotic use. Clostridium difficile is a serious condition that can cause fever, abdominal pain, excess diarrhea, and possible colitis. If you have any of these symptoms after taking antibiotics, you should contact your health care provider for a full evaluation.

3. Should I be taking a probiotic?

Not all bacteria are bad; in fact, there are a ton of bacteria living in, on, and around our body that play a crucial role in keeping us healthy. Sadly, antibiotics cannot always distinguish between the good and the harmful bacteria, so they can kill off the healthy bacteria too. In order to replenish them, taking a probiotic may be recommended. Probiotics are supplements that contain good bacteria that are either the same as or very similar to the bacteria that are already in your body. Probiotics can also be found in some yogurts, cheeses, and fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut. Not all probiotic supplements are equal, so ask your health care provider which brand of probiotics they recommend!

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4. Will it interact with anything else I'm taking?

Antibiotics are prescribed to be helpful, but it's important to be aware of your other medical conditions and, in particular, your current medication and supplement list when taking an antibiotic. Certain classes of antibiotics can cause interactions with medications you may already be taking. In particular, some classes of antibiotics may interfere with the efficacy of oral birth control. Your health care provider may recommend backup or a nonhormonal method of birth control while you are taking the antibiotics and for one week afterward.

5. How soon will I feel better?

This is probably one of the most important questions when you are already feeling sick. Typically we think that within 24 to 48 hours after your first antibiotic dose, you should start to feel some improvement. Antibiotics are not magic pills, and so it's important to follow the trajectory rather than complete resolution of symptoms within that time frame. Alternatively, you may feel completely better within two days' time, however, this does not mean that you should stop taking your medications.

In a recent article in the British Medical Journal, the need to complete the course of antibiotics has been called into question. However, this is something that the medical community needs to examine more closely. So while the professionals continue to study this, it is best for you to take your antibiotics exactly as prescribed!

Here's how to protect your body and support your gut while on antibiotics.

And are you ready to learn how to fight inflammation and address autoimmune disease through the power of food? Join our 5-Day Inflammation Video Summit with mindbodygreen’s top doctors.

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