What should I know about antibiotic safety?

Antibiotics are powerful drugs that are generally safe. They are very helpful in fighting disease, but sometimes antibiotics can actually be harmful.

Key facts to know about antibiotic safety:

  • Antibiotics can have side effects including allergic reactions and serious, possibly life-threatening diarrhea caused by the bacteria (germ) Clostridium difficile (C. diff). Antibiotics may also interfere with other drugs you may be taking.
  • Side effects of antibiotics are responsible for almost one out of five emergency department visits. They are the most common cause of emergency department visits for children under 18 years of age.
  • When you take an antibiotic you do not need, you are unnecessarily exposed to the side effects of the drug and do not get any benefit from it.

Taking an antibiotic you don’t need can lead to the development of antibiotic resistance. When resistance develops, antibiotics may not be able to stop future infections. Every time you take an antibiotic you don’t need, you increase your risk of developing a resistant infection in the future.

The bottom line: antibiotics come with benefits and risks. If you are prescribed an antibiotic, discuss the balance of benefits and risks with your healthcare team.

  • Allergic reactions: Every year, there are more than 140,000 emergency department visits for reactions to antibiotics. Almost four out of five emergency department visits for antibiotic-related side effects are due to an allergic reaction. These reactions can range from mild rashes and itching to serious blistering skin reactions, swelling of the face and throat, and breathing problems. Minimizing unnecessary antibiotic use is the best way to reduce the risk of side effects from antibiotics. You should tell your doctor about any past drug reactions or allergies.
  • C. difficile: C. difficile is a type of bacteria (germ) that causes diarrhea linked to at least 14,000 American deaths each year. When you take antibiotics, good bacteria that protect against infection are destroyed for several months. During this time, you can get sick from C. difficile. The bacteria can be picked up from contaminated surfaces or spread from the healthcare environment. People, especially older adults, are most at risk who take antibiotics and also get medical care. Take antibiotics exactly and only as prescribed.

Drug interactions

Antibiotics can interact with other drugs you take, making those drugs or the antibiotics less effective. Some drug combinations can worsen the side effects of the antibiotic or other drug. Common side effects of antibiotics include nausea, diarrhea, and stomach pain. Sometimes these symptoms can lead to dehydration and other problems. Ask your doctor about drug interactions and potential side effects of antibiotics. Notify your doctor right away if you have any side effects from antibiotics you are taking.

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