We spoke with Dr. Shira Doron, an attending physician who specializes in infectious diseases, and she answered questions regarding when you should take, stop and how to dispose of antibiotics.
Q: When is it appropriate to take an antibiotic?
A: Antibiotics are appropriate only for infections that are strongly suspected to be caused by bacteria. Even then, not all bacterial infections require antibiotics. For example, some skin abscesses (collections of pus under the skin) can be treated just by draining them. Infections likely to be viral, like colds, coughs and sinus infections, should not be treated with antibiotics except under specific circumstances.
Q: If it isn’t appropriate, what could you take/do instead?
A: When antibiotics are not appropriate, but you feel sick, there are lots of ways to speed up recovery and manage the symptoms. When you’re fighting an infection, get plenty of rest and drink fluids. You can use acetaminophen or ibuprofen for aches, pains and fever, but you only need to treat a fever if it’s really making you uncomfortable.
Q: Should you continue taking an antibiotic for the full prescription or stop when you’re feeling better?
A: Taking antibiotics changes your normal flora, which can lead to unpleasant symptoms and antibiotic resistance. Further, all medications have side effects. Sometimes, it can be hard for your doctor to predict how many days of antibiotics you will need. Talk to your doctor about what you should do if you feel better before you have finished the full prescription. In some cases, studies have shown that certain durations of antibiotics are necessary to eradicate an infection. In other cases, short courses have been shown to work just as well, and it might be safe to stop early based on symptoms.
Q:What questions should you ask your doctor if you’re prescribed antibiotics?
A: Ask your doctor if he or she feels strongly that you have a bacterial infection. In some cases, your doctor may be able to give you a “delayed prescription”, to be filled only in certain agreed upon circumstances (such as symptoms that don’t improve in 48 hours, or redness that expands beyond a certain margin). Ask what criteria warrant a return visit. Lastly, as stated above, ask your doctor if you should complete the full course even if you feel completely better.
Q: How can one properly dispose of an antibiotic after they have completed the appropriate dosage?
A: The FDA provides many options for disposal, including in home and authorized collectors on their website.