What you can do to safeguard antibiotic effectiveness

Repeated and improper use of antibiotics is the primary cause of the increase in the number of drug-resistant bacteria. Here's what you can do to promote proper use of antibiotics:

  • Understand when antibiotics should be used. Don't expect to take antibiotics every time you're sick. Antibiotics are effective in treating most bacterial infections, but they're not useful against viral infections, such as colds, acute bronchitis or the flu. And even some common bacterial ailments, such as mild ear infections, don't benefit much from antibiotics.
  • Don't pressure your doctor for antibiotics if you have a viral illness. Instead, talk with your doctor about ways to relieve your symptoms — for instance, a saline nasal spray to clear a stuffy nose or a mixture of warm water, lemon and honey to temporarily soothe a sore throat.
  • Take antibiotics exactly as prescribed. Follow your doctor's instructions when taking medication. Don't stop treatment a few days early because you're feeling better. Taking the full course of antibiotics is the only way to kill all of the harmful bacteria. A shortened course of antibiotics, on the other hand, often wipes out only the most vulnerable bacteria while allowing relatively resistant bacteria to survive.
  • Never take antibiotics without a prescription. If you didn't complete a full course of antibiotics, you might be tempted to use the leftover medication the next time you get sick or to pass it along to someone else. But this isn't a good idea. For one thing, the antibiotic might not be appropriate for another illness. And even if it is, you're not likely to have enough pills to combat the germs making you sick, which can lead to more resistant bacteria.
  • Prevent the spread of germs. Good hygiene goes a long way in preventing infection. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water, especially after using the toilet, changing a diaper, or handling raw meat or poultry. Keep food preparation areas clean. Although special antibacterial cleaners and soap are widely available, they aren't necessary. Plain soap and water work fine to kill germs in most settings.
  • Get recommended vaccinations. Ask your doctor if you have all of the vaccinations you need to protect yourself from illness. Getting vaccinated will help prevent having to take more medications.

Protect yourself and others

Antibiotic resistance is a global health problem. Nearly all significant bacterial infections in the world are becoming resistant to commonly used antibiotics. When you misuse antibiotics, you help create resistant microorganisms that can cause new and hard-to-treat infections. That's why the decisions you make about using antibiotics — unlike almost any other medicine you take — have far-reaching consequences. Be responsible in how you use antibiotics to protect your health and that of your family, neighbors and community.

Feb. 04, 2012 See more In-depth