When you’re sick, the natural thing to do is to reach for something that will make you feel better. With many common illnesses and conditions like the common cold, headaches or muscle aches, over-the-counter treatments can help manage your symptoms until your body heals on its own.

But what about when you’re treating a condition that can’t be well-managed with over-the-counter products? That’s where antibiotics may step in. Keep reading for the lowdown on what they are, when they’re used and how they work.

What are antibiotics and what are they used for?

Antibiotics are powerful medicines that are used to treat a wide variety of infections and diseases caused by bacteria. Most bacteria in your body are harmless, but some bacteria cause health problems and need to be treated with antibiotics.

Antibiotics only treat bacterial infections. That means they don’t treat viruses or help you feel better when you have a virus, such as a cold or the flu.

The most common types of antibiotics and what they treat

Antibiotics are used to treat and prevent many bacterial infections. Some antibiotics are considered narrow-spectrum antibiotics and only affect a few types of bacteria, but others – called broad-spectrum antibiotics – treat a wide range of bacteria that cause many common illnesses.

Antibiotics used for ear infections

Common antibiotics prescribed to treat middle ear infections include amoxicillin and amoxicillin/clavulanate (Augmentin). These antibiotics begin working immediately, but you may not start feeling better for a day or two after starting treatment. Severe ear infections – where symptoms last longer than two or three days – may require an antibiotic. However, your body’s immune system may be able to fight off a minor middle ear infection and heal without needing antibiotics, so your doctor may suggest:

  • Watchful waiting – Your doctor may recommend waiting for a few days to see if your symptoms clear on their own, with the aid of over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen to ease pain, extra fluids and plenty of rest.
  • Delayed prescribing – Your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic but suggest waiting a few days to fill the prescription to see if the infection heals on its own.

Antibiotics used for strep throat

Common antibiotics prescribed to treat strep throat include penicillin and amoxicillin. Even though the antibiotics will begin working immediately, it may take a day or two to feel better after starting treatment. Strep throat is important to treat with antibiotics. If left untreated, it can lead to complications like sinus and tonsil infections, kidney problems and rheumatic fever.

Antibiotics used for bacterial sinus infections

One of the earliest symptoms of upper respiratory infections like the common cold is sinus inflammation. This means it might feel like you have a sinus infection when you don’t. So, using home remedies like over-the-counter pain medications or a doctor-recommended nasal spray may be all you need to help manage sinus symptoms.

But if you are diagnosed with a bacterial sinus infection by a doctor, antibiotics may be prescribed to help your body fight it off. Common antibiotics prescribed to treat sinus infections include amoxicillin-clavulanate (Augmentin) and doxycycline. These begin working right away, but you may not start feeling better until a few days after starting treatment.

Also, some minor sinus infections may heal without the use of antibiotics. But if your symptoms last longer than 10 days without getting better, your fever lasts longer than three days, or your symptoms become more severe, you may require an antibiotic.

Antibiotics used for urinary tract infection (UTI)

Common antibiotics prescribed to treat UTI include cephalexin and sulfamethoxazole/trimethoprim. These antibiotics will start fighting your UTI right away, but you may not begin feeling better for a few days after starting treatment.

For uncomplicated UTIs that occur when you’re otherwise healthy, your doctor may prescribe 1-3 days of antibiotics, but if your UTI doesn’t resolve by then, the course of antibiotics may be a week or more. And, while they shouldn’t replace treatment by a doctor, there are home remedies that can help prevent a UTI and improve your symptoms.

How do antibiotics work and what are common side effects?

Antibiotics work by blocking bad bacteria – either by killing the bacteria or stopping it from multiplying. Different antibiotics work in different ways. For example, some antibiotics fight infection by destroying a bacterial cell’s walls, while others affect the way the bacterial cell works. The antibiotic a doctor may prescribe is usually based on a test to determine the type of bacteria causing an infection and the way it reacts to certain infections.

There are several ways to take antibiotics:

  • Tablets, capsules and liquids – These are generally used to treat mild to moderate infections in the body.
  • Topical applications – Often in lotions, sprays, creams or drops, topical antibiotics are often used to treat skin, eye and ear infections.
  • Injection or intravenous (IV) – These are often used for more serious infections.

As with any medication, there is the possibility of side effects when taking antibiotics. Your body has both good and bad bacteria. Antibiotics aim to kill the bad bacteria that are making you sick. But as a result, they can also kill good bacteria at the same time.

Most commonly, the good bacteria in your gut are what can be affected by antibiotics. This can result in nausea, cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, and bloating or indigestion. Certain types of antibiotics can also kill the good bacteria in a woman’s vagina, which may result in a yeast infection.

Occasionally, there can be other reactions to antibiotics, such as hives, coughing or trouble breathing. These reactions may mean you’re allergic to the antibiotic, so it’s important to let your doctor know as soon as possible if you experience these symptoms.

It’s also important to note that antibiotics can negatively interact with other medications such as blood thinners, or make other medications like birth control, less effective. Making sure your doctor knows what medicines you already take will help them prescribe the right antibiotic for you.

4 ways to make sure you use antibiotics the right way

Antibiotics can be used incorrectly. They’re helpful when needed, but they need to be used in the right way. Here are four important tips to keep in mind.

1: Only take antibiotics when you absolutely need to

When antibiotics were first invented, they were a helpful tool to fight off infections that were previously considered deadly, such as strep throat or staph infections. Now, due to overuse of antibiotics, bacteria are changing, resulting in a condition called antibiotic resistance. This means that some antibiotics are becoming less effective at fighting bacteria, leading to more severe illnesses and longer recovery time.

It’s important to only take an antibiotic when you aren’t able to heal on your own, to lessen the chance that bacteria in the future may change and become resistant to treatment. Also, only use antibiotics to prevent and treat bacterial infections. Antibiotics can’t treat viral infections, like the common cold.

2: Follow your doctor’s orders

When a doctor gives you a prescription for antibiotics, they need to be taken exactly as prescribed. Take the full course of treatment – even if you start feeling better, don’t stop taking them until your doctor instructs you to. Follow the dosage exactly as prescribed, don’t take an antibiotic for the incorrect length of time and don’t save them for later.

3: Don’t share antibiotics

Prescriptions are meant for individual patients, for several reasons. If you take antibiotics prescribed for someone else, it may not be effective in fighting the infection you have. There’s also the possibility of an allergic reaction if you’ve never taken the antibiotic before. Additionally, even if the antibiotic is meant to treat your specific infection, the dosage may not be correct.

4: Talk with a doctor about concerning symptoms

It’s good to take care of yourself to try and prevent illness. Proper hand washing and good hygiene go a long way. Natural treatments such as honey, garlic, onions and certain essential oils may also help manage certain symptoms. But if symptoms like fever, congestion and sore throat aren’t improving or are worsening after a couple of days, it’s a good idea to get in touch with a doctor or clinician.