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Using Antibiotics Safely and Wisely

Got antibiotics? Many people save leftover medicines to treat the next sore throat or earache in the family. Keeping leftover antibiotics to treat a future illness may seem like a good idea, but only a health care provider can tell when you really need an antibiotic--and if you do, which type is best for your illness.

Taking antibiotics when you don't need them, or even when you do, can be dangerous. Antibiotics have been misused so much in recent years that doctors now face an alarming problem. Bacteria that once were easily controlled have become resistant to many antibiotics. This has led to an increase in drug-resistant strains of illnesses such as pneumonia, ear infections and meningitis.

A national health problem

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that antibiotic resistance has been called one of the world's most pressing public health problems. It can cause significant danger and suffering for people who have common infections that once were easily treatable with antibiotics. When antibiotics fail to work, the consequences are longer-lasting illnesses; more doctor visits or extended hospital stays; and the need for more expensive and toxic medications. Some resistant infections can cause death. Sick individuals aren't the only people who can suffer the consequences. Families and entire communities feel the impact when disease-causing germs become resistant to antibiotics. These antibiotic-resistant bacteria can quickly spread to family members, schoolmates and co-workers, threatening the community with a new strain of infectious disease that is more difficult to cure and more expensive to treat.

According to experts, once bacteria become resistant to one antibiotic, they may rapidly become resistant to others. New drugs will eventually be developed to beat these more resistant bacteria, but new drugs alone won't solve the problem of antibiotic resistance.

What you can do

As a patient and a consumer, you can do a great deal to protect yourself from resistant bacteria. The key is taking antibiotics only when needed, and then using them correctly. The following guidelines can help you:

  • Understand when antibiotics are necessary. Antibiotics work only on bacterial infections. These include strep throat, some urinary tract infections, and many children's ear infections. Antibiotics cannot cure an illness caused by a virus--and colds, flu, and most sore throats are caused by viruses. This information is especially important for parents, because antibiotics are prescribed for children much more often than for adults. Antibiotics rarely are needed to treat a child's cough or other respiratory infections.

  • If your doctor prescribes a medication for you, make sure it's necessary. If your doctor prescribes an antibiotic, be sure to ask why you need it. Try saying this: "I've heard about antibiotic resistance, and I want to be sure that I don't take an antibiotic if I don't need it." This gives your doctor a chance to explain why you need the prescription.

  • If your doctor doesn't prescribe an antibiotic, it's probably because an antibiotic is not the right drug for your condition. But always let your doctor know if you have any questions.

  • Take antibiotics exactly as directed. This includes taking the full course of the prescription. If you do this, you won't have antibiotics left over. Taking only part of a prescription can be dangerous. It may encourage antibiotic-resistant bacteria to develop. It may also allow the infection to return.

Antibiotics are still an important tool for doctors, of course. If you have a bacterial infection, you should follow your doctor's orders and let the medicine work for you.

If the illness continues or gets worse, tell your doctor right away, so you can get the treatment you need as soon as possible.