Why doctors always tell you to finish your course of antibiotics

IIf you have had a bacterial infection in the past few years, whether it is a urinary tract infection, strep throat, ear infection or any other bacterial disease, you may have been prescribed antibiotics. And, if so, you’ve probably heard the following instructions: Finish all your antibiotic pills. Maybe you’ve heard it from your supplier or the pharmacist who dispenses your medicine, maybe you’ve noticed it written in bold capital letters on the bottle, or maybe a loving carer told you says take them all. Well, now you hear it from your friendly health editor too. Completing your antibiotic treatment is essential for your current infection, your overall health, and even your public health concerns.

What are antibiotics, anyway

“Antibiotics do one thing and one thing only: kill bacteria,” says Linda Yancey, MD, infectious disease specialist, Memorial Hermann Health System in Houston. Specific antibiotics eliminate certain bacteria that they are supposed to kill by different physiological mechanisms. For example, nitrofurantoin (Macrobid) is a commonly used antibiotic for UTIs because it targets bacteria in and around the urinary tract.

Dr. Yancey points out that researchers have been designing dosage amounts and schedules for years to make them effective. There’s a reason for every number you see on this clear orange bottle. Medications need time to destroy bacteria in your body. Not completing the pills you have been prescribed just because you feel better or your symptoms have improved is not good for your overall health.

What impact do they have on your health

When you follow an antibacterial cure that is too short, it can have two effects. First of all, your infection may not be completely cleared up, even if you start to feel better. If you take enough antibiotics to reduce, say, 70% of the bacteria in your body, of course, your symptoms might improve. But the remaining 30% of bacteria can increase within days or weeks, says Dr. Yancey.

Not only can they replicate, but bacteria can also change and, like all living things, they can become more robust in order to survive. If you introduce a specific antibiotic into your system to fight off these invaders, you want them to kill them completely, says Dr. Yancey. Introducing drugs into your system to kill only part of the infection may actually give bacteria a chance to replicate in a way that can fight off the drug. This means that the infection may resist your medicine and be harder to kill when you start taking medicine again.

What are the bigger picture effects

Believe it or not, this also has broader public health concerns. When contagious infections evolve as a result of unfinished medication or ineffective treatment (which also happens), they can spread. From a public health perspective, this is dangerous. You don’t want an invader to become stronger, more contagious, and resistant to the treatment that’s supposed to kill it. This is how diseases become more potent and more difficult to treat on a broader societal level.

The best way to combat this and protect yourself against antibiotic resistance is to follow your supplier’s instructions and check the details on your medication instructions if you forget. And, as Dr. Yancey points out, remember to keep taking your medication even after you start feeling better.

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