Why You Should Always Finish A Course Of Antibiotics

The improper use of antibiotics might lead to the production of treatment-resistant bacterial strains that can threaten the health of future patients.

Bacteria are, in a way, Darwin's microcosm. Not only can a population of millions of independent, self-serving organisms exist in a space the width of a dime, they can also reproduce on such a scale of speed that the effects of the selective process can actually make a difference in a matter of days or hours. This is, of course, of great use to those involved in medical and biological research, but it should be of additional interest to those worried about killing the little buggers off.

Antibiotics are, as we likely know, prescribed to almost anyone with a potentially threatening bacterial infection. They work by interrupting some key process in bacterial reproduction, such as DNA or RNA synthesis, or the production of stable cell membranes. This seems, of course, like a magic bullet, but over time some bacteria have developed a resistance to one or many of these chemicals. Research indicates that this resistance may be an evolutionary response to the widespread use of antibiotics, especially on the scale in which they are applied to livestock.

While this does arouse the obvious argument that antibiotic use should be scaled back in all but the most necessary of cases, it also means that antibiotics, when taken, should be taken with absolute thoroughness. You see, according to theory, an incomplete dose of antibiotics would kill only the bacteria least resistant to the drug, leaving only the 'strongest' ones to remain, propagate and infect others. This process, repeated, results in a strain of bacteria more and more resistant to antibiotic treatment, one that will eventually, in theory, infect longer and spread more thoroughly than any other strain. This in turn leads to the presence of antibiotic-resistant strains that can infect the human population, but which cannot be treated effectively by medicine.

The real problem with this common caveat is that, while doctor's word is taken usually taken as gospel (usually to the benefit of the patient), dosage rounds are usually pretty arbitrary. There's a reason doctors always prescribe for you three, five, seven, ten days of antibiotics, and not two, four, nine or twelve. They're not magic numbers--they're approximations. Usually, with bacterial infections, if you're feeling well, you probably are well, regardless of the term of your dose. This doesn't mean you should disobey your doctor--to the contrary, a little extra never hurt anyone, at least not severely. But excessive antibiotic doses can rid your body of beneficial intestinal bacteria, and for women can cause very uncomfortable yeast infections as the microbial balance of the body is upset.

So use common sense in taking your medications. Nine times out of ten, your doctor's word is probably the best track to getting you healthy. Antibiotics have their long-term risks, but they are some of the most effective medicines for treating bacterial infections in humans. Take them with care, and take them responsibly. Finish your dose unless you are fully sure that your infection has been cured, and don't stockpile them for unnecessary use. They will do no good against viral infection, and may very well do some harm.

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