Why finishing antibiotics is important for your health

When it comes to antibiotics most of the information we hear from news and healthcare professionals is to avoid the overuse of antibiotics when they are not needed. The use of antibiotics for infections that are caused by viruses, like chest colds and sinus infections, does not shorten the duration of the illness but can still cause side effects. These side effects can range from rashes to serious intestinal problems, like diarrhea, and can lead to germs (bacteria) developing resistance with repeated courses. 

There are good recommendations that help providers know which type of antibiotic is a good choice when your body needs help in fighting an infection.  Remember the key word here is help, as the body has its own way of fighting off infections. When the body is not able to keep an infection in check, antibiotics are there to assist the body in killing the bacteria and clearing up the infection.  Curing the infection can take as little as a few days to perhaps many weeks depending on what part of the body is affected.

Antibiotics help kill bacteria over a period of days. There are some bacteria that respond quickly to the antibiotic and others that respond more slowly. The length of the antibiotic treatment is dependent on how well the antibiotic can get to the site of infection. Most antibiotics are cleared from the body through the kidneys and the urine. For example, bladder infections generally respond quickly to antibiotics while treatment for bone infections will likely be longer since the blood supply to bones is limited, therefore, concentrations of antibiotics are lower at these sites of infections.

So what determines the best duration of treatment for a course of antibiotics? The duration of treatment of the most common antibiotics were established years ago when there was less emphasis on minimizing antibiotic exposure. Researchers are beginning to study various durations of antibiotic treatments to establish better recommendations to providers.  The best recommendation available today is what has worked in the past. Until better information is available that will be the standard of care.

This is why it is important to complete all prescribed antibiotics.  Improvement is likely to be experienced within a few days, however there are bacteria in the infection site that respond slower to antibiotic exposure and are still able to multiply. It is important to continue treatment beyond just improvement of symptoms. If you look closely at the labels on your prescription bottle of antibiotics most will include a label that instructs you to complete the entire course. 

Here are some other recommendations that you should follow when being prescribed an antibiotic:

  • Antibiotics are a limited resource and they should be used wisely and selectively.
  • Antibiotics can have serious side effects and if they occur you should contact your physician as soon as possible.
  • Instructions about length of antibiotic therapy are sometimes arbitrary and some patients and infections may respond faster than others.
  • You should talk to your healthcare provider about the length of therapy. Complete the entire prescription in order to have the best chance for a complete cure of infection.
  • If you begin to feel better and think that you may not need to finish the entire prescription, talk to your doctor first.  Do not take it upon yourself to stop the antibiotics early.
Ken Mishler, BCBSKS corporate pharmacist

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