Fact Sheets : Antibiotic Use

About antibiotics

Antibiotics, are medications that treat infections caused by bacteria. Before antibiotics became available, people, especially children and the elderly were dying from bacterial infections that today we can usually treat. Antibiotics have no effect on viruses.

How do antibiotics work?

Antibiotics like penicillin work by killing or preventing bacteria from growing and spreading. Usually the body can fight off infection but sometimes the infection is so powerful that antibiotics are needed to help kill or stop the bacteria so that the body's immune (or protective) system clears up the rest.

Is there a problem with over-using antibiotics?

Antibiotics are vital in today's medical practice, even though as with all medications, there may be some side effects which overall, are out-weighed by the benefits. However, we now have come to understand that overuse or misuse of antibiotics can result in bacteria developing ways of resisting the effect of the antibiotics on them. This is referred to as antibiotic resistance. The so-called "super bugs" are becoming increasingly resistant to more than one antibiotic. Experts fear that we will eventually not be able to treat them with any of the antibiotics available today. An example of such a bug is streptococcus pneumoniae, the major cause of ear infections in children which because of resistance, is becoming quite difficult to treat.

Can antibiotic resistance development be prevented?

It is important to have a rational approach to antibiotic use. Most infections that seen in children, including the common cold, diarrhea and vomiting, are caused by viruses and do not need antibiotics. Here are some guidelines that can help prevent the development of antibiotic resistance:

  • Viral infections should not be treated with antibiotics.
  • If your child is prescribed antibiotics, he or she should take the whole course that is prescribed even if feeling better. Not completing the entire prescribed dose may also promote resistance.
  • Antibiotics should only be taken when prescribed by your doctor.
  • You should never use antibiotics given to you by someone else or prescribed for a previous infection. To avoid this temptation, throw away any extra antibiotics left over from a previous infection.

Antibiotics can protect and help when necessary against bacterial infections. However, a sensible approach to their use is best.