All about antibiotics

This week I have been inundated with patients suffering from flu-like symptoms, and all wanting antibiotics to get them better quickly!!

Unfortunately, most of the time their symptoms are due to viral infections and I’ve sent them off to the pharmacy with a battery of medications, but no antibiotics. “How can you be so cruel?”, I hear you ask. Well let’s take a closer look at antibiotics before you judge me! What are antibiotics for?

Antibiotic literally means “against life”. These amazing medications were first discovered in 1928, with Penicillin being the first, and rapidly changed the face of medicine. Antibiotics are used to treat BACTERIAL infections such as TB, Syphilis, bacterial tonsillitis, some Pneumonias and some types of Meningitis.

They do not work against:

  • viruses (like the influenza virus and HIV)
  • fungi (Candida, ring worm)
  • parasites (intestinal worms and Malaria)

How do antibiotics work?

Antibiotics work by either killing the bacterium OR by stopping it from multiplying. They are given when your immune system is unable to get rid of a bacterial infection on its own, or in order to prevent a bacterial infection, for example before a major operation. In this case they are referred to as prophylactic antibiotics.

There are literally thousands of different antibiotics, and depending on what and where your infection is, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics accordingly. Although there are many types of antibiotics, they all have some important things in common:

  • Common side effects: diarrhoea, nausea and secondary fungal infections such as thrush
  • Possible interaction with other medication you are taking, for example the birth control pill. Antibiotics renders some oral contraceptives ineffective, however commonly used broad-spectrum antibiotics are unlikely to affect contraception.
  • It’s important to finish the course you’re given, to help prevent resistant infections. In South Africa, for example, drug resistant TB is a serious problem. The World Health Organisation estimates that there are around half a million people with drug resistant TB in South Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe alone!
  • Antibiotics and alcohol don’t mix! This is because they can have similar effects, and using them together can make symptoms worse. Certain antibiotics can cause severe reactions if used with alcohol.
  • Allergic reactions such as skin rash are common but rarely life-threatening. If you have had a bad reaction in the past to antibiotics, it’s important to mention this to your doctor.
  • Antibiotics kill the bad AND some of the “good” bacteria which live in your gut and on your skin. This is why you might get thrush/diarrhoea while you’re on a course of antibiotics. Taking a probiotic 1-2 hours before you take your antibiotic can help lessen the side effects.
Read  When can you stop taking your medication?

Written by Dr Lynelle Hoeks

Want to know what questions you should be asking your doctor if they’ve prescribed antibiotics? Read Part 2 of our antibiotics blog