Guest Author - A. Maria Hester, M.D.
Antibiotics are nothing short of miracle drugs. Every day, countless people are snatched from the edges of death as a result of these wonder drugs. They treat everything from minor skin infections to overwhelming pneumonias. In some instances, simply taking antibiotics prior to a procedure helps ensure a better outcome.
However, there is a potential downside to taking antibiotics. They, like all drugs, have the potential to have side effects. Of course, if you need the medication, by all means, take every last pill your doctor prescribes. This article is in no way meant to imply that antibiotics do more harm than good. They do not! Rather, it is meant to help you understand that there is a chance that there will be short-term or even long-term complications associated with antibiotic use in a small minority of patients.
Most women are aware of the fact that it is common to get a yeast infection after taking antibiotics. This is because since antibiotics kill off many bacteria that naturally live inside of women, they can result in an overgrowth of the yeast that typically live there with them, in a harmonious co-existence. Likewise, antibiotics can also tip the balance of other typically peaceful relationships between the tiny micro-organisms that inhabit our bodies.
For instance, when the colon experiences an overgrowth of bacteria called Clostridium difficile, a potentially serious infection can result. C. diff (for short) can cause a mild illness in some and an overwhelming illness in others. In some cases, the colon may have to be removed in order to save a person's life! The principle is the same with the irritating, but essentially harmless yeast infection some women get after taking antibiotics and the potentially life-threatening cases of C. diff.
Yet another potential complication of antibiotic use is that so called "superbugs" can emerge as a result of mutations in the genetic make-up of organisms. It is kind of like a survival of the fittest situation, so to speak, in the tiny world of microbes. When micro-organisms are exposed to antibiotics that kill them, they often mutate, or change their DNA structure, in order to continue to live, despite the barrage of pharmaceutical weaponry. Put another way, the more you are exposed to antibiotics, the more likely it is that resistance to these drugs will develop and so there may come a time that they fail to control even simple infections, such as certain urinary tract infections. Fortunately, it is very rare that an infection fails to respond to any antibiotic. However, it may be necessary to do a bacterial culture to confirm exactly what antibiotics will work in a particular case instead of feeling comfortable that "empiric treatment" with commonly used antibiotics will treat the infection. Since cultures take days to complete, there may be a delay in appropriate treatment.
These are but a few examples of how antibiotics have the potential to cause harm. Nevertheless, since antibiotics by their very nature have the potential to completely cure infections that can become life-threatening, it is imperative that you take them when prescribed! However, it is also important to understand potential risks.
Seeing your doctor at the earliest signs of infection can actually decrease the amount of time that you need antibiotic treatment. The milder the infection, the less treatment you will need, at least in some types of infection. In addition, many infections that were obviously viral infections have been treated with antibiotics simply because doctors gave in to their patients' requests for antibiotics, a failure of our medical system. If your doctor strongly feels that an infection does not warrant antibiotics, do not force the issue. Instead, monitor your symptoms and let her know if you get worse with conservative treatment. She may need to reassess the situation, but at least you opted for a conservative approach, which is usually the best one to take.