Antibiotic Use FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions

Information Provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

What is an antibiotic?

An antibiotic is a powerful medication designed to kill bacteria. These drugs enable physicians to cure bacterial illnesses, like ear infections and strep throat. Antibiotics do not work against viral infections, such as a cold or influenza (the flu). If you take an antibiotic when it is not needed, you increase your risk for developing an antibiotic-resistant infection if you get sick.

Can antibiotics be harmful?

Antibiotics are an important medication used to treat infections caused by bacteria. But antibiotics, whether used appropriately or inappropriately, may cause side effects. These side effects may be mild, like stomach upset, or may be very severe, like allergic reactions. All antibiotics, just like all medications, come with a risk of side effects. You should discuss these possible risks with your physician and pharmacist.

What are resistant bacteria?

Antibiotics do not kill some bacteria. These bacteria are considered to be "resistant" to the antibiotic. Resistant bacteria emerge because of the proper use of antibiotics as well as the overuse of antibiotics. Once bacteria develop resistance to antibiotic treatment, they can continue to live and/or multiply even after an antibiotic is taken.

What is an antibiotic-resistant infection?

An antibiotic-resistant infection is an infection that is difficult or impossible to cure with antibiotics. Common sites for antibiotic resistant infections include lung, skin (like wounds or surgical sites), urine, and intestines. These infections may be hard to treat, resulting in longer and more severe illnesses. They may even need to be treated in the hospital. CDC estimates that two million antibiotic resistant infections occur nationwide each year, and that 23,000 people die from them.

How will the doctor treat my infections if one antibiotic does not work?

Your doctor may try higher doses of antibiotics, a different type of antibiotic, or combinations of antibiotics, or may try to administer the antibiotic in a different way (such as, through the vein). You may have to go to the hospital for some of these other types of antibiotics.

How do I catch an antibiotic-resistant infection?

There are three ways in which you can get an antibiotic-resistant infection:

  1. You can develop antibiotic-resistant infections when you take an antibiotic. Bacteria that have been exposed to the antibiotic but have developed ways to survive can multiply and begin to cause symptoms. You also can transmit these resistant bacteria to others and they too may become ill.
  2. You can catch antibiotic resistant-infections from people who are infected with resistant bacteria. Resistant bacteria are frequently found among people in hospitals, nursing homes, or day care centers. Not properly washing hands can increase your risk of catching all kinds of infections.
  3. You can develop an antibiotic-resistant infection when the bacteria inside your body change in ways that allow them to resist antibiotic treatment.

How can I prevent antibiotic-resistant infections?

You can do several things to prevent-antibiotic resistant infections in yourself and others:

  1. Do not take an antibiotic for a viral infection such as cold or flu.
  2. Always wash your hands thoroughly.
  3. Do not eat uncooked poultry or meat.
  4. Take an antibiotic exactly as the doctor prescribes.
  5. Take the antibiotic until it is gone, even if you are feeling better. Never save the medication to treat yourself or others later.
  6. Get vaccinated!

If I do not take action to avoid antibiotic resistance, how does that affect those around me?

If you do not take action to prevent resistance, you affect your friends and loved ones. Research has shown that during and shortly after the time a household member takes an antibiotic, others in the same household have more resistant bacteria in their throat or on their skin. Although these resistant bacteria may never cause symptoms, they could cause infection or spread to others. Preventing resistance can have larger effects as well. If everyone takes precautions against resistance and uses antibiotics correctly, antibiotics will remain effective for longer periods of time.

Will antibiotics be completely ineffective someday?

It is unlikely that this will occur. However, there are now strains of some bacteria that are not treatable with any of the routinely available antibiotics. Researchers will continue to make or find stronger antibiotics, but bacteria will continue to find ways to survive.

Why would health care providers give antibiotics if not needed?

Approximately one-third to one-half of all antibiotic prescriptions are not needed. Many health care providers report feeling pressured by worried parents or patients to prescribe antibiotics. They also may not be sure whether a bacterium or virus is causing the infection. In some cases, laboratory tests, such as for strep throat, can be helpful.

Why do parents ask their children’s doctor for antibiotics when they may not be needed?

Some day care centers may request that a child be treated with an antibiotic before returning to day care. Also, if a child received an antibiotic in the past for a cold the parent may feel the antibiotic is necessary every time the child has a cold. This is why it is important that parents are educated about when it is appropriate for a doctor to prescribe an antibiotic for their children.

If my doctor wants to give me an antibiotic, what questions do I need to ask?

  1. Why do I (or my child) need an antibiotic?
  2. What is the name of the drug?
  3. How and when do I take it and for how long?
  4. Are there food, drinks, or activities I should avoid while taking this medication?
  5. Does the medication cause side effects? What are they and how can I prevent them?
  6. Can I take this medication safely while I am also taking another prescription or non-prescription medicine?

So what types of infections are antibiotics used for? And what type of infections do not require an antibiotic?

You should take an antibiotic for a bacterial infection, such as strep throat. You should not take an antibiotic for viral infections, such as a cold or the flu. Below is a chart that can help you understand the type of sicknesses that are caused by bacteria and viruses.


Usual Cause
Illness Virus Bacteria Antibiotic Needed?
Cold (with yellow/green runny nose) X   No
Flu (influenza) X   No
Chest cold X   No
Bronchitis X   No
Middle ear infection   X Sometimes*
Strep Throat   X Yes
Sinus Infection   X Sometimes**

*Mild ear infections do not always need antibiotics. Your doctor may wait to see if the ear infection gets better on its own.

**Most sinus infections will need an antibiotic, however sometimes the common cold is mistaken for a sinus infection. Coughs and nasal discharge associated with colds will persist for 10–14 days. If cold/flu symptoms last more than 10–14 days or you experience symptoms of fever with pus-filled nasal discharge and facial pain/tenderness, visit your doctor.

If I have a viral infection (cold or flu), what can I do to feel better?

  1. Increase your fluids and get extra sleep;
  2. Take over the counter pain and fever relievers (like acetaminophen or ibuprofen);
  3. Use a cool mist vaporizer or saline nasal spray to relieve congestion;
  4. Soothe a sore throat with ice chips or sore throat spray, or use lozenges for older children and adults;
  5. See your doctor if your symptoms do not improve in 10–14 days;
  6. Let your doctor decide if you need an antibiotic; and
  7. Avoid smoking, secondhand smoke, and other pollutants (airborne chemicals or irritants)
For more ways to feel better, visit the CDC's Symptomatic Relief page or talk to your pharmacist.