Colorado Get Smart about Antibiotics

Germs and Antibiotics

Antibiotic Resistance

Antibiotics and Illnesses

Antibacterial Products and Food

Germs and Antibiotics

What are bacteria and viruses?

There are two types of germs that cause most infections: bacteria and viruses. Bacterial infections can be cured by antibiotics, but common viral infections never are.

BACTERIA: Bacteria are very tiny organisms that are found naturally in many places such as soil, plants, water, and the human body. There are numerous types of bacteria. Most bacteria are harmless and many are helpful. However, some bacteria can cause infections in humans like strep throat and urinary tract infections.

VIRUSES: Viruses are tiny parasites that rely on nutrients inside cells to function and reproduce. They can cause many infections in humans, including the common cold and many other respiratory illnesses.

What is an antibiotic?

An antibiotic is a powerful medication designed to kill bacteria or stop them from growing. They are appropriately prescribed for illnesses caused by bacteria, like strep throat and many ear infections. They cannot cure illnesses caused by viruses, such as a cold or the flu. Different antibiotics may be used for different types of bacterial infections. Only your health care provider can determine what infection you have and which antibiotic is appropriate to treat it.

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Antibiotic Resistance

What is antibiotic resistance?

Antibiotic resistance occurs when an antibiotic has lost its ability to effectively kill or control bacterial growth. These bacteria are considered to be "resistant" to the antibiotic. Once bacteria develop resistance to antibiotic treatment, they can continue to live and/or multiply and cause infection even after an antibiotic is taken.

Why is antibiotic resistance a problem?

Antibiotic resistance is a problem because infections due to resistant bacteria are more difficult to treat, may result in longer and more severe illness, or expensive hospitalizations, and may need treatment with stronger antibiotics that can cause more serious side-effects. The problem of antibiotic resistance is getting worse. As the number of resistant bacteria grows, we may lose the ability to cure bacterial infections and people may die from common infections like pneumonia.

The misuse and overuse of antibiotics in humans, animals, and agriculture is responsible for the current problem of antibiotic resistance. Humans contribute to the problem in several ways:

  • Taking antibiotics when they are not necessary, such as for viral infections.

  • Demanding antibiotics when antibiotics are not appropriate OR insisting on a prescription for an antibiotic when your   doctor says they are not necessary.

  • Not taking your prescribed antibiotic for the full course of treatment.

  • Using antibiotics without a doctor's care or using leftover antibiotics.

It is estimated that up to 50% of antibiotics used in humans may be inappropriate. Most of this inappropriate use is for illnesses due to viruses-- against which antibiotics are ineffective. It is very important to do what we can to slow resistance now. The best way to do that is to reduce inappropriate antibiotic use.

How does antibiotic-resistance spread?

Antibiotic resistance not only affects your own health, but it also affects the health of your friends, loved ones, and others in the community. If you have an antibiotic-resistant strain, you can unknowingly spread the resistant strain to everyone with whom you come into contact. Only the small minority of persons who are colonized with antibiotic-resistant bacteria develop symptoms. Resistance spreads in the same way as other common infections like colds and the flu. When a person coughs or sneezes, resistant bacteria can be easily transmitted to others. In this way, hard-to-treat bacteria can be unintentionally spread from person to person. Handwashing one of the most important to ways to decrease the spreading infections of infections to others. 

Can bacteria lose their antibiotic resistance?

Yes, antibiotic resistance can decrease, but this process occurs slowly. As antibiotic use decreases, the pressure on bacteria to change and adapt to antibiotics is decreased. This allows the bacterial population to revert back to a population of bacteria that responds more easily to antibiotics.

Can the effectiveness of existing antibiotics be preserved?

To preserve the power of existing antibiotics, overall antibiotic use must be decreased. Physicians, pharmacists, and the general public must avoid misuse use of these drugs. If everyone works together, takes precautions against resistance, and uses antibiotics correctly, we will extend the usefulness of these drugs.

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Antibiotics and Illnesses

What infections need antibiotics?

Antibiotics only fight bacterial infections. They do not work against viruses. When you take an antibiotic for a viral infection, it will not cure the infection, prevent others from catching your illness, or help you to feel better faster. Your healthcare provider can help you determine what kind of infection you have and whether an antibiotic is necessary.

Antibiotics NOT NEEDED - Viral infections
  • Common Cold
  • Chest cold
  • The flu
  • Most coughs
  • Most sore throats
  • Some ear aches
  • Runny nose

  • (with green or yellow discharge)

  • Bronchitis
  • Laryngitis
Antibiotics needed - Bacterial infections
  • Strep throat
  • Some sinus infections
  • Some ear infections
  • Urinary tract infections

I've taken antibiotics in the past for a cold and I felt better quickly. Why shouldn't I take them for a cold now?

People with colds will get better regardless of what medicines they use. Many times people take antibiotics right when their own body's immune system was about to make them feel better anyway, yet they attribute getting better to the antibiotic rather than their own immune system. Using antibiotics when you don't need them exposes you to all the risks of antibiotics (antibiotic resistance; rashes; anaphylaxis; diarrhea; yeast infections) without exposing you to any of the benefits.

If I can't take an antibiotic for a viral infection, like a cold, the flu, or bronchitis, what can I do to feel better?

Get extra sleep, drink lots of fluids, and eat healthy foods. This will help your body fight viral infections. Over-the-counter medicines like throat lozenges, decongestants and cough suppressants containing dextropmethorphan may help your symptoms while your body is fighting the virus. A vaporizer may also help loosen dry secretions. Viral infections simply need time to get better. Antibiotics will not help.

If I have a runny nose with a cold and the drainage turns green or yellow, do I need an antibiotic?

No. Viruses cause colds. Normal cold symptoms include sore throat, fever, cough, and/or a runny nose. A runny nose often starts out with clear drainage and then turns to a green or yellow color. An antibiotic will not help. Sometimes green or yellow discharge associated with other symptoms may be an indication that you might need antibiotics, but this is best left to your doctor.

If my doctor wants to give me an antibiotic, what questions do I need to ask?

  • Why do I (or my child) need an antibiotic
  • What is the name of the drug?
  • How and when do I take it, and for how long?
  • Are there food, drinks, or activities I should avoid while taking this medication?
  • Does the medication cause side effects? What are they and how can I prevent them?
  • Can I take this medication safely while I am also taking another prescription or non-prescription medicine?

How do I take antibiotics correctly?

  • Only use antibiotics only when your doctor or healthcare provider prescribes them.
  • Never take antibiotics for viral infection such as cold, cough, or the flu.
  • Never pressure your doctor to prescribe you an antibiotic.
  • Take the antibiotic until it is gone, even if you are feeling better. Never save the medication to treat yourself or others later.
  • Never take leftover antibiotics or take a prescription that was used by someone else in your household.

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Antibacterial Products & Food

Do antibacterial products (such as antibacterial soaps) prevent infections better than ordinary soaps?

Except in health care settings, antibacterial products are no better than ordinary soap for preventing infections. Hand washing for 15 seconds with ordinary soap and water will reduce the risk of most common infections and will not add to antibiotic resistance.

How does antibiotic use in agriculture and livestock affect me?

Antibiotic use in livestock and fisheries are primarily for non-therapeutic purposes of growth promotion and to prevent disease. Agricultural use serves to control or prevent bacterial infections in fruit trees. Sources report that livestock and agriculture industries consume at least 40% of antibiotics manufactured yearly in the United States and 50% of the antibiotics used worldwide each year.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can also arise in pigs, chickens, cattle and other farm animals, which are exposed to low doses of antibiotics in their daily feed. These resistant bacteria can then spread to humans, causing antibiotic-resistant infections. Currently, very few human infections stem from resistant bacteria in animals, but scientists and researchers are still concerned about the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture and livestock and the yet unknown impact on the health of humans.

Isn't antibiotic use in agriculture part of the problem?

Many efforts are underway in the U.S., Canada, and Europe to better understand how antibiotic use in animals contributes to the problem of antibiotic resistance and how this affects the health of humans. You can find more information on this topic at the following websites:

Questions were adapted from the following campaign websites: WARN, AWARE, CDC, and APUA.


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