Antibiotics Overview

Antibiotics hold a very special place in the history of the human race. Although they weren’t used on a large scale until the 20th century, they had already been used traditionally, and unknowingly, to treat infections for thousands of years.

As our understanding of infections and antibacterial agents grew, it allowed for conditions such as pneumonia and diarrhoea to be treated easily. Although these are common, conditions caused by simple infections were the number one cause of death in the developed world before the development of antibiotics.

Here we’ll look at what antibiotics are and why you’re advised to always finish the course.

What are antibiotics?

Antibiotics are only available with a prescription and they work by stopping the growth of, or killing, bacteria in the body. Penicillin was the first group of antibiotics to be used on a large scale after it was discovered accidentally by Alexander Fleming in 1928.

It’s thought that up to one in five antibiotics may be prescribed inappropriately, as they don’t treat viral infections such as sore throats, colds or flu, despite some patients requesting them for these conditions. It’s also worth noting that many milder bacterial infections often get better by themselves, if the body is left to fight them on its own.

Antibiotics are usually grouped together based on how they work. Each type of antibiotic only works against certain types of bacteria or parasites. This is why different antibiotics are used to treat different types of infection.

The main types of antibiotics include:

As well as the above main types of antibiotics, there are a number of other antibiotics that specialist doctors or hospital doctors may prescribe for more uncommon infections such as tuberculosis (TB).

When to take antibiotics?

You should only take antibiotics to treat infections caused by bacteria. Antibiotics are not effective against viruses, so they don't treat illnesses like the common cold or flu. If you take an antibiotic when you don’t need it – for example, when you have a cold or the flu – it can make you feel worse and make your illness last longer. In fact, when used the wrong way, antibiotics can cause more severe illnesses like diarrhea, nausea and rashes. Taking an antibiotic when you don’t need it can also make your body resistant to antibiotics – meaning the next time you really need antibiotics to fight a bacterial infection, they may not work as well to cure you.

How to take antibiotics?

Depending on the antibiotic, they’re typically taken between one and four times a day to help maintain a constant level of medication in the body. The NHS always recommends that patients finish their prescribed course of antibiotics and don’t stop taking them when they begin to feel better, the symptoms may be clearing, but some of the infection may remain. Stopping early means the infection might come back – meaning you could have to start another course.

Antibiotics contraindications

Hypersensitivity to prescribed antibiotics, others in its family, or components of the drug. Some antibiotics are contraindicated in infants and children (e.g., tetracyclines, quinolones).

Antibiotics side effects

The most common side effects of antibiotics affect the digestive system. These happen in around 1 in 10 people.

Side effects of antibiotics that affect the digestive system include: 

  • vomiting
  • nausea (feeling like you may vomit)
  • diarrhoea
  • bloating and indigestion
  • abdominal pain
  • loss of appetite

These side effects are usually mild and should pass once you finish your course of treatment.

If you get any additional side effects, contact your GP or the doctor in charge of your care for advice.

What is antibiotic resistance?

Chances are you’ve read or heard about the rising levels of antibiotic resistance around the world. It’s an increasingly serious issue which has been identified by the World Health Organisation. They state that antibiotic resistance is rising to dangerously high levels which could potentially make people once again vulnerable to common infections.

Working with your GP or pharmacist

The NHS advises that patients should complete their prescribed course of antibiotics.

If you have any concerns about your treatment, you should always discuss them with your GP or pharmacist. Stopping the course of medication without prior consultation could have an adverse effect on the outcome of your treatment.

How to get antibiotics?

Pharmacy2U’s service is best suited to those with repeat prescriptions. Therefore, we’d recommend using a high street pharmacy to fulfill your one-off prescription for antibiotics, so you can have them dispensed as quickly as possible. This will mean you’re able to start taking them the same day. You can still keep using Pharmacy2U for your repeat prescriptions. Learn more about using our NHS repeat prescription service.

Phil Day By Phil Day Superintendent Pharmacist Published 16/09/2019