Antibiotics are used to treat or prevent some types of bacterial infection. They kill bacteria or prevent them from reproducing and spreading.
Antibiotics aren't effective against viral infections. This includes the common cold, flu, most coughs and sore throats.
Antibiotics aren't routinely prescribed for mild bacterial infections. This is because the immune system can usually clear these on it's own.
When are antibiotics used?
Antibiotics may be used to treat bacterial infections that:
- are unlikely to clear up without antibiotics
- could infect others unless treated
- could take too long to clear without treatment
- carry a risk of more serious complications
Antibiotics to prevent infection
Antibiotics are sometimes given as a precaution to prevent an infection. This is known as antibiotic prophylaxis.
Antibiotic prophylaxis is normally recommended if you're having surgery in a certain area. This is because there could be a higher risk of infection.
Your surgical team will be able to tell you if you need antibiotic prophylaxis.
People vulnerable to infection
Antibiotics may be recommended for people who are more vulnerable to infection. This includes:
- people aged over 75 years
- babies less than 72 hours old with a confirmed bacterial infection
- babies with a high risk of developing a bacterial infection
- people with heart failure
- people who have to take insulin to control their diabetes
- people with a weakened immune system
Bites or wounds
Antibiotic prophylaxis may be recommended for a wound that has a high chance of becoming infected. This could be an animal or human bite, for example, or a wound that has come into contact with soil or faeces.
There are several medical conditions that make people particularly vulnerable to infection. This makes antibiotic prophylaxis necessary.
The spleen plays an important role in filtering out harmful bacteria from the blood. If your spleen doesn't work properly, this means antibiotics can help prevent infection.
People more vulnerable to infection include those:
- who've had their spleen removed
- having chemotherapy for cancer
- with the blood disorder sickle cell anaemia
Antibiotic prophylaxis may also be recommended for a recurring infection, like:
Types of antibiotics
There are many different types of antibiotic. Most can be put into 6 different groups.
These are widely used to treat a variety of infections, including:
- skin infections
- chest infections
- urinary tract infections
These can be used to treat a wide range of infections. Some are also effective for treating more serious infections, like:
These are usually used in hospital to treat very serious illnesses like septicaemia. This is because they can cause serious side effects like hearing loss and kidney damage.
Aminoglycosides are usually given by injection. They may also be given as drops for some ear or eye infections.
These can be used to treat a wide range of infections. They are commonly used to treat moderate to severe acne and rosacea.
These can be particularly useful for treating lung and chest infections.
Macrolides are used as an alternative for people with a penicillin allergy. They can also be used to treat penicillin-resistant strains of bacteria
These are broad-spectrum antibiotics that can be used to treat a wide range of infections.