What are antibiotics?

Antibiotics are medications that help to fight bacteria. They come in many different forms and have many mechanisms of action.

Recently, we have seen a lot of information about antibiotic resistance. This occurs when antibiotics are used far too often, and the bacteria they are being used against change so that the antibiotics are no longer effective. This is concerning, as there may be infections in the future that do not respond to antibiotics and cannot be treated.

When are antibiotics helpful?

Antibiotics are helpful when infections are caused by bacteria. Some examples of these infections include:

  • Strep throat

  • Pneumonia (lung infection)

  • Bladder infections

  • Skin infections like cellulitis

  • Sexually transmitted infections such as gonorrhoea and chlamydia

When are antibiotics NOT helpful?

Antibiotics DO NOT work on infections caused by viruses.

  • Antibiotics are NOT helpful for the common cold, as the common cold is caused by a virus

  • Antibiotics are NOT helpful for the flu, as the flu is caused by a virus (however people with the flu may be able to be treated with antiviral medication)

  • Antibiotics are NOT helpful for most cases of sore throat, as most cases are caused by a virus. Strep throat is the excecption to this.

  • Antibiotics are NOT helpful for most cases of sinusitis. Some cases of sinusitis can become bacterial after the initial viral infection, but this takes time. If you have sinusitis symptoms for less than 10 days, you should not take antibiotics unless you also have a high fever.

  • Antibiotics are NOT helpful for most cases of acute bronchitis (an infection of the airways leading to the lungs), because bronchitis is usually caused by a virus. If you have bronchitis and cough up green mucus, it does not necessarily mean you have a bacterial infection.

Even though antibiotics do not work on viruses, some people think they do. This is usually because they took them for a viral infection and got better, however these people would have got better anyway with or without an antibiotic.

What’s the harm in taking antibiotics?

  • Antibiotics can cause side effects such as nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea, and can increase your risk of other infections (such as yeast infections in women)

  • Allergies to antibiotics are common, and can range from rashes and itching to life threatening anaphylaxis

  • Overuse can lead to antibiotic resistance, as mentioned above. This can be very dangerous if we have bacteria that cannot be treated – imagine if you or a loved one got an infection which could not be treated… Terrifying!

When should I take antibiotics?

They should only be taken when a doctor or nurse prescribes antibiotics for you. This means that you are getting antibiotics for the right reason, and the right type of antibiotic.

If you do have an infection caused by bacteria, your doctor or nurse may wan to find out what the bacteria is by doing a ‘culture’ (growing a sample) in the laboratory. This cannot be done if you have already started taking antibiotics.

How can I help to reduce antibiotic resistance?

  • Don’t pressure your doctor into prescribing you antibiotics if they do not think you need them

  • If you are prescribed antibiotics, take the medication as directed and do not skip doses. Take the antibiotics for as long as is instructed by your doctor.

  • If you are prescribed antibiotics, do not save any of them for the next time you are sick. You will need to see your doctor again for an assessment and for them to decide the correct treatment.

  • Don’t give antibiotics that were prescribed to you to other people

  • Use alcohol-based hand gel instead of antibacterial soaps/gels

  • Don’t take antibiotics for a viral infection

If you are interested in learning more about this topic, feel free to book an appointment with one of our friendly doctors by booking online or contacting us by phone on 8269 6000 .


  • Crowley K, Martin KA 2017, Patient Education: What you should know about antibiotics (The Basics), UpToDate, retrieved on 1/9/17, < https://www-uptodate-com.proxy.library.adelaide.edu.au/contents/what-you-should-know-about-antibiotics-the-basics?source=search_result&search=antibiotics&selectedTitle=1~150#H179433786 >

  • CDC 2016, Antibiotics aren’t always the answer, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, retrieved online 1/9/17, < https://www.cdc.gov/features/getsmart/index.html>

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