Antibiotics are life-saving medications. They not only treat bacterial infections, they can prevent the spread of disease and reduce the risk of serious complications. But the overuse or misuse of antibiotics has led bacteria to become resistant to them, and some of the antibiotics that were once standard treatments for bacterial infections are becoming less effective — or may not work at all.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), up to one third to one half of antibiotic use in humans is unnecessary or inappropriate. And there are consequences: each year there are approximately 2 million infections from antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the United States, which result in 23,000 deaths.

Prescribing antibiotics for a shorter time not only limits a person’s chance of developing adverse reactions, it also reduces the risk that antimicrobial resistance will increase.

For many common bacterial infections, a shorter course of antibiotics is not only safe, it could be all we need, according to a recent analysis by the American College of Physicians (ACP), an organization comprised of internists. Prescribing antibiotics for a shorter time not only limits a person’s chance of developing adverse reactions, but it also reduces the risk that antimicrobial resistance will increase over the long-term. Plus, taking less medication is cost effective.

To encourage doctors to prescribe antibiotics for shorter periods of time and patients to use them more conservatively, the ACP’s Scientific Medical Policy Committee reviewed studies of antibiotic use and overuse in relation to a variety of conditions. The committtee has just published Clinical Guidelines on the reduced use of antibiotics for certain conditions.

Based on their analysis, the ACP suggests a shorter course of antibiotics is likely all that is required for those with:

  • Exacerbated COPD;
  • Acute complicated bronchitis;
  • Community acquired pneumonia;
  • Uncomplicated urinary tract infection (UTI);
  • Cellulitis.
  • It’s always a good practice to question your health provider when an antibiotic is prescribed, just to double-check that it is necessary and will be effective for your condition — or your child’s. For example, though antibiotics work to treat strep throat, they will not be of help for other common illnesses due to viruses, such as colds and runny noses (even if the mucus is thick and yellow), most sore throats (other than strep) and the flu.

    Like most medications, antibiotics also have side effects including nausea, diarrhea and yeast infections. When it comes to taking antibiotics:

  • Don’t drink alcohol; it limits the drug’s effectiveness.
  • If you miss a dose, don’t double-up.
  • Don’t take the antibiotic with fruit juice or dairy because they can interfere with your body’s absorption of the drug.
  • Stay out of the sun. Antibiotics can increase your skin’s sensitivity to sunlight, making you more likely to burn. If you must be outside, apply added sunscreen.
  • The upshot? Antibiotics are life savers — and deserve to be treated with caution and care. The Clinical Guidelines and a free summary for patients are published in Annals of Internal Medicine.