Antibiotics: what you need to know

Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats facing us today.

Antibiotics are important medicines used to treat infections caused by bacteria.

Bacteria can adapt and find a ways to survive the effects of an antibiotic. They become ‘antibiotic resistant’ so that the antibiotic no longer works.

The more often we use an antibiotic, the more likely it is that bacteria will become resistant to it and some bacteria that cause infections, such as MRSA, are already resistant to several antibiotics.

Alternative antibiotics may be used to treat a bacterial infection but they may not be as effective, they may have more side-effects and eventually the bacteria will become resistant to them too.

We cannot be sure we will always be able to find new antibiotics to replace old ones and in recent years fewer new antibiotics have been discovered.

What is antibiotic resistance?

Watch this short video from Public Health England:

Handle antibiotics with care

Without effective antibiotics, a growing list of infections is becoming harder to treat. These include pneumonia, tuberculosis, blood poisoning and gonorrhoea.

Your doctor will only prescribe antibiotics when you need them, for example for a kidney infection or pneumonia.

If you are perscribed antibiotics please use them as directed, make sure you finish the course, don’t save them for future use and never share them with others.

It is important we use antibiotics in the right way, the right drug, at the right dose, at the right time for the right duration.

Why is it a problem?

Infections caused by antibiotic resistant bacteria are more difficult to treat, leading to increased levels of disease, death and longer hospital stays.

Operations like bone, heart or bowel surgery, and treatments like chemotherapy all require antibiotics to be successful; if our antibiotics do not work these procedures will become impossible without risk of infection.

What can you do?

To slow resistance we need to cut out unnecessary use of antibiotics, there are three simple steps you can follow:

  • Step 1: Don’t ask for antibiotics for infections caused by viruses. Antibiotics do not work for these and your body can usually fight these infections on its own. Viral infections include all colds, most coughs, sore throats and ear ache.
  • Step 2: If you are prescribed antibiotics take them exactly as prescribed, never save them for future use, never share them with others
  • Step 3: Help raise awareness by telling your friends and family about antibiotic resistance.

How do I treat my cold?

Unfortunately no amount of antibiotics will get rid of your cold.

The best way to treat most colds, coughs or sore throats is to drink plenty of fluids and to rest. Colds can last about two weeks and may end with a cough and bringing up phlegm.

There are many over the counter remedies to ease the symptoms, for example paracetamol, ask your pharmacist for advice.

If the cold lasts more than three weeks, or you become breathless or have chest pains, or already have a chest complaint, see your doctor.

Advice for parents

It can be very worrying as a parent if your child has a high temperature, or a persistant cough that keeps them awake, and you think your child needs antibiotics.

However, it’s very common for children to have coughs and colds, on average about six times a year, especially when they go to school and mix with other children.

Most coughs and colds are eased with over-the-counter medicines, or paracetamol, and ask your pharmacist for advice.

If the symptoms persist and you are concerned, see your doctor but you shouldn’t expect to be prescribed antibiotics.

NHS Choices: Antibiotics

Colds, coughs and ear infections

Treating a high temperature

Cover for When should I worry?

When should I worry?

A parent's and carer's guide to coughs, colds, earache & sore throats in children.

Become an Antibiotic Guardian

We are urging you to become aware of how we all need to use antibiotics more wisely by signing up to be an Antibiotics Guardian:

Antibiotic Guardian