June 14, 2023

Antibiotics save lives, but they are overused — so much so that experts warn they are already less effective. How do we protect their future use? Here are six tips when taking antibiotics.

Taking antibiotics seems like a routine treatment, but antibiotic overuse is making them less effective over time. What can we do to ensure antibiotics continue to be there when we need them?

“We need to work together,” said Erin Neal, a pharmacist with the Vanderbilt Health Affiliated Network and member of the Vanderbilt Antimicrobial Stewardship Program. “Change is difficult, so we all have a role to play: doctors, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, pharmacists — even patients.”

Neal and her colleagues are working with each of these groups. They know it will take effort from everyone and that change can be hard. In the past, antibiotics were prescribed often, and patients came to expect them. But truth is that antibiotics are ineffective for many illnesses, including respiratory colds caused by viruses, and patients will get better just as quickly without them.

“Change is difficult, so we all have a role to play: doctors, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, pharmacists — even patients.”

“We get it. It’s a difficult habit for all of us to change. Doctors, nurse practitioners and physician assistants went into medicine because we want to help people, so it is very tempting to prescribe antibiotics if the patient wants them,” said Dr. Sophie Katz, who is partnering with Neal to lead the antibiotic stewardship project. “But prescribers and patients alike need to learn to resist this urge and use the appropriate treatments instead.”

Do’s and dont’s for taking antibiotics

Katz and Neal gave some practical tips for patients who want to do their part:

  1. Don’t pressure a health care provider for antibiotics. It’s fine to ask why you aren’t getting them. The physician should be happy to explain and offer alternatives.
  2. Educate yourself about antibiotics. They do not help viruses, like colds and sore throats, and can cause undesirable side effects like potentially serious rashes and diarrhea.
  3. Other treatments can help symptoms caused by viruses, including Tylenol, ibuprofen, nasal decongestants, and even honey and steam, which help treat coughs and congestion. Viruses like the flu or COVID-19 can be aided by antiviral medications.
  4. Take antibiotics exactly as they are prescribed and finish the series even if you start to feel better. Don’t take leftover antibiotics or antibiotics that were not prescribed to you.
  5. If you are prescribed antibiotics, don’t be surprised if the dose is lower or shorter than in the past. Feel free to ask your provider or pharmacist to explain the change.
  6. Take steps to prevent you and your family from getting sick during cold and flu season: wash your hands; get recommended vaccines; avoid touching your face; regularly clean surfaces; cover coughs with your elbow; and consider masking in crowded indoor spaces.

Consult your experts

Talk to your health care provider or pharmacist if you have questions about how to take your antibiotics. It’s always smart to also talk with them about other medications you take, including over-the-counter ones, to be sure there will be no problematic interactions between different drugs.

A list of what antibiotics can and can't help