Antibiotics and Viruses

Antibiotics have been saving lives ever since Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in the 1920s. Having medications that actually can destroy or slow down bacteria meant that infections that could have killed patients could be treated effectively, and that was an amazing game-changer for medicine.

There are times when antibiotics are still the best available option for an illness or infection, and taking antibiotics can ensure a safe and healthy recovery. There are also times, however, when antibiotics are not the best option, and they could potentially end up doing more harm than good.

Antibiotics are often an effective treatment for bacterial infections, but antibiotics are not effective against viruses. Treating a viral infection with antibiotics would be an inappropriate use of antibiotics.

Why is it bad to treat viral infections with antibiotics? There are a few reasons. Antibiotics will not cure infections caused by viruses, and since they do not cure the infection they also do nothing to prevent the spread of the infection. In addition to the fact that antibiotics are ineffective against viral infections, taking an antibiotic to cure a viral infection can lead to potentially harmful side effects, and can contribute to antibiotic resistance. Resistance to antibiotics can lead to bacterial infections that cannot be cured with antibiotics — a major step backward.

What can you do to help make sure that you are using antibiotics appropriately?

  • Avoid self-diagnosis. Don’t assume that you have a bacterial infection that can be cured with antibiotics, and don’t insist on getting antibiotics for viral infections such as the cold or flu.
  • Do not take antibiotics that were prescribed to someone else, or antibiotics that were prescribed to you on a different occasion. Antibiotics are prescribed for a reason, and taking any prescription drug that was not prescribed to you by a physician is not a wise decision.
  • Follow the instructions when you do take antibiotics. Complete the course of treatment and take all of the antibiotics you’re prescribed, even if you feel better before you finish them.
  • If you’re feeling ill and suspect that you have an infection, whether it is bacterial or viral, schedule an appointment with your primary care physician.