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What Are Antibiotics? Behind the Scenes of Your Prescription

There are all kinds of different infections out there, both viral and bacterial. And along with infections comes misinformation about the medications used to treat them. Some may be treated with prescription antibiotics, while others -- viral infections -- won't respond to them. In fact, taking an antibiotic for a viral infection may do you more harm than good.

But what are antibiotics? As a patient, it helps to understand exactly what they are, what they treat, and how they work so you can be fully on board with the treatment plan prescribed to you by your doctor.

What Are Antibiotics?

Antibiotics are a group of medications used to kill or inhibit the growth of bacteria. While the field of antibiotics continues to grow, their use began with the discovery of penicillin in 1928 and has had a significant impact on human health ever since, curing once-deadly bacterial infections.

Some antibiotics are only effective against certain types of bacteria, while others can effectively treat a wide range of bacteria (not all bacterial infections require antibiotics, though). They're most often used to treat bacterial infections such as strep throat, some ear infections, bladder and urinary tract infections, and lung infections.

The most common categories of antibiotics are penicillins, cephalosporins, macrolides, tetracyclines, sulfonamides, and fluoroquinolones. Each of these antibiotics works differently to combat different bacterial strains, but they all function the same way: by killing the bacteria or preventing it from reproducing, thus allowing your body to fight off infection.

Of course, your doctor will prescribe the most appropriate antibiotic for you based on your symptoms.

Antibiotics, Antivirals, and Antibacterials

While antibiotics fight many infections, it's important to distinguish them from antivirals and antibacterials. Antivirals, prescription medications used to fight against some viruses, cannot combat bacterial infections.

An antibacterial agent -- such as soaps, detergents, health and skin-care products, and household cleaners -- interferes with the growth and reproduction of many strains of bacteria. Those products are used to disinfect and remove potentially harmful bacteria from surfaces, but are certainly not to be consumed as medications.

Proper Treatment

When prescribed antibiotics, you should take the full course of medication as prescribed by your doctor, even if you feel better partway through taking them. This is because the bacteria may still be present in your body once the symptoms are gone, and missing doses or stopping the medication early might cause the infection to return or even become resistant to antibiotics.

One round of antibiotics is typically enough to cure most infections, but some patients may need another round. If, at the end of your treatment, you find that your symptoms are not entirely cleared up, get in touch with your doctor for further instructions. You may need another round of the same, or a different, antibiotic.

Many patients take antibiotics without questioning the process and decision-making behind them, and while you can certainly trust your doctor to make the right choice for you, it's good to have an understanding of antibiotics and their integral role in fighting bacteria.

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