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What are antibiotics?

Antibiotics are medications that kill infection-causing bacteria or keep them from reproducing. It’s important to make this distinction, since most bacteria that live in your body are harmless. Some of the conditions that are treated with antibiotics include:

  • Meningitis
  • Bacterial pneumonia
  • Kidney infections
  • Bladder infections
  • Ear infections
  • Sinus infections
  • Dental infections
  • Skin infections
  • Whooping cough
  • Bronchitis
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Upper respiratory tract infections
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Streptococcal Pharyngitis
  • Acne

Antibiotics are among the most frequently prescribed medications, and there are more than 100 different types used to cure infections — ranging from minor health issues to life-threatening conditions. The most commonly used antibiotics include penicillin, cephalosporin, macrolides, fluoroquinolones, sulfonamides, tetracyclines, and aminoglycosides.

What are the most important things I should know about antibiotics?

Antibiotics may impact the effectiveness of birth control pills — so if you’re using them, use a backup contraceptive while receiving treatment. Women may also get vaginal yeast infections while on antibiotics. Symptoms include itching, burning, vaginal discharge that looks like cottage cheese, and pain during sexual intercourse. If you experience one, you can treat it with an anti-fungal topical cream.

Antibiotics are specifically designed for each infection they treat and cannot be interchanged from one infection to another.

Dosages may need to be modified on patients with kidney or liver disease, pregnant or breastfeeding women, children, and the elderly.

Antibiotics do not fight infections caused by viruses, such as colds, the flu, bronchitis, and most cases of sore throat. Taking antibiotics when you don’t need them may lead to antibiotic resistance — which can be detrimental to your health later on when you actually need the medication.

When taking antibiotics, it’s crucial to continue taking the dosage instructed by your doctor, even if you feel well. Stopping treatment too soon may worsen your condition.

What are the common side effects of antibiotics?

Side effects are rare. However, since your body is also full of good bacteria, antibiotics may affect them — especially those in your digestive system. When this occurs, you may experience the following side effects:

  • Mild stomach upset
  • Loss of appetite
  • White patches on the tongue
  • Bloating
  • Indigestion
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

More serious side effects — that require medical attention, since they are a sign of an allergic reaction — include the following:

  • Breathing difficulties
  • Hives
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Fainting

These are not all of the possible side effects of antibiotics. Talk to your doctor about any side effects that you experience. You are encouraged to report negative side effects of prescription drugs to the FDA. Visit, or call 1-800-FDA-1088.