Antibiotics Q & A

This month, we focus on antibiotics.

Q: Firstly, please demystify antibiotics for us. What are they?
A: Antibiotics, also known as antibacterials, are medications that destroy or slow down the growth of bacteria and, as such, are used to treat diseases caused by bacteria. The immune system is ordinarily equipped to fight off a bacterial infection. When the number of harmful bacteria is excessive and the immune system is unable to fight them all, antibiotics are used to help the immune system fight the bacterial infection.
Interesting fact: penicillin, the first natural antibiotic, was discovered in 1928 by Alexander Fleming and is still used today.

Q: A lot of people assume you can use antibiotics for colds, flu, infections, and other medical issues. What are antibiotics meant to treat?
A: Antibiotics should be used only if clinical or laboratory evidence suggests bacterial infection. Using antibiotics for a viral illness or undifferentiated fever is inappropriate in most cases; it unnecessarily exposes patients to possible drug complications without any benefit and it’s a major contributor to bacterial resistance.
So, to put it plainly, antibiotics have no effect on the viruses which cause colds and flu. They are however prescribed in the case of a secondary bacterial infection like bronchitis which may occur in susceptible patients.

Q: Do antibiotics “expire” – can you use them again if you haven’t finished the course?
A: All medicines expire! Expired medicines should never be used as their efficacy and/or toxicity due to degradation of the drug has not been tested and documented past the expiry date. Antibiotics are no exception. In fact there are certain antibiotics which are very dangerous if used after the expiry date. Even if antibiotics haven’t yet expired but are “left over” from a course which was not finished, you shouldn’t use these. Take these “leftover” antibiotics to your local pharmacy to be disposed of.

Q: Do antibiotics have any side-effects, and can pregnant women take them?
A: Each antibiotic has its own list of possible side-effects, but as a general rule of thumb, the following are common effects associated with the most frequently prescribed antibiotics:

  • Gastrointestinal disturbances i.e., diarrhoea, nausea, and vomiting, upset stomach.
  • Rash.
  • Risk of allergy (most commonly occurring with penicillin and related classes).

There are some side-effects specifically associated with certain antibiotics e.g., sensitivity to sunlight with Tetracycline (often used to treat acne). With certain antibiotics or long-term use of antibiotics, fungal infections (thrush) of the mouth, digestive tract, and vagina are also prevalent, and it’s advisable to add a probiotic to the regimen. Very important is that the probiotic must not to be taken at the same time as the antibiotic; the dosing should be separated by at least two hours so that the antibiotic doesn’t inhibit the growth of or kill the active probiotic strains.
As far as pregnancy is concerned, there are some antibiotics which are documented as safe to use during pregnancy. There are also some which are definitely contraindicated. At the end of the day it is a judgement call by the doctor, pharmacist and patient. They need to weigh up the benefit versus the risk of using an antibiotic which has no safety data, but it is not contraindicated. There is no “one size fits all” here. Each individual situation must be assessed

Q: What does “antibiotic resistance” mean?
A: Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria evolve to become “immune” to the effects of a particular drug resulting in a “super bug” which continues to grow and infect despite the presence of antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance has spread because of poor use of antibiotics. For example, using antibiotics to treat conditions that are caused by viruses, without any benefit, contributes to bacterial resistance. Another possible reason for antibiotic resistance is incorrect dosing. Antibiotic resistance is a major problem worldwide. With this resistance we run the risk of antibiotics being rendered completely ineffective over time. We have a responsibility to ensure that antibiotics are used for the right disease, at the right time and for the right duration.

Medical disclaimer
This article is for informational purposes only. Always check with your doctor or medical practitioner about any health concerns, before embarking on any fitness or nutrition programme, and usage of any medication.