Leftovers; great unless they are antibiotics

I was in the bank the other day and heard a woman tell another woman about her sick child. The mother of the sick child was complaining that the doctor didn’t give her child an antibiotic and instead said “let’s give it time and see if it clears up”. The mother said the doctor admitted he or she wasn’t sure if the symptoms were from a virus or bacteria and didn’t want to automatically prescribe antibiotics in case it was viral.  The mother complained to her friend that she was not happy and said she would just give her child some left over antibiotics that she had at home. Big no-no!

We have all been told to finish all medications as prescribed but many people still don’t listen. It is not uncommon for people to save the leftovers for another occasion but this is really not a good idea.

Why? I will tell you why…

Each antibiotic works differently. Some are long acting, some hit hard first and then hold steady, others take time to build up and kill the bacteria over a longer period of time. Different antibiotics work on different types of bacteria or different parts of the body. The same antibiotic may need to be administered in different strengths, mode of administration, and/or time intervals depending on the disease.  This is one reason we should not be self-medicating. Doctors choose antibiotics based on a many factors that we are not privvy to.

Should you give the wrong antibiotic for the disease one of the following things could happen:

1. Nothing but you just took drugs for no reason (see building up a resistance)

2. You could cause unwanted side effects like killing the good bacteria in your gut.

3. Help bacteria become more drug resistant.

Another reason not to self-medicate is because we could be making things worse when we don’t take an entire course of antibiotics.  Just because you are feeling better doesn’t mean the bacteria is all gone. In order to make sure all the bad bacteria is gone, you need to finish the course of antibiotics…this kill time has been taken into consideration when the doctor determined the course of treatment.  If you stop treatment before the bacteria has been fully eliminated, you allow those stronger ones (the ones that haven’t been killed yet) to survive and multiple. It really only takes one. Now it is more likely that you will have to take a stronger medication to kill this bacteria and possibly future infections.


This figure is a visual representation of a bacterial colony. On Day 1, you feel sick and start antibiotics. By Day 3 of antibiotics, you are feel so much better but you are not 100%. On Day 5, you may feel completely well but you may still have a couple bacterium’s in your system that still need fighting. If you stop now on Day 5 and you are supposed to go to 7 or 10 days, you could allow them to reproduce and come back with a vengeance.

This scenario happens when you either stop your course of antibiotics early OR just take a couple left over pills from your previous infection. Either way, you are not really helping yourself out.

Bacteria survive as a species because of their ability to mutate and resist antibiotics. This is why doctors are trying to not over prescribe. They (and we) are now faced with combating strains of bacteria that are resistant to ALL antibiotics. This is very dangerous. If you get one of these antibiotic resistant bacterial infections, you are screwed. There is nothing the doctors can do but support your symptoms and pray for the best.  You better hope you have a good immune system and even that may not be good enough.

When my daughter was young she had MANY boughts of inner ear infections, strep throat and bronchial/lung infections. I remember one of that last times she had a strep or bronchial infection (I can’t remember), it would not respond to several levels of antibiotics because she had been on so many antibiotics through out her early life. She was one step away from being hospitalized and put on IV antibiotics. Luckily for her, the last one did the trick.  Since having her tonsils removed, she has not had any more infections and no need for antibiotics. It was a scary lesson.

I know we are living in a society that wants to avoid being uncomfortable or interrupted. We want to take a pill and be done with it. However, this is backfiring now.

So please, if your doctor thinks you, or your child, may have a virus, try giving it a couple days to observe how the symptoms change. Symptoms can be different between bacterial and viral infections but sometimes in the early stages it is hard to tell.



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