In conjunction with the University of Michigan, AARP recently conducted a poll on antibiotic use in older Americans (aged 50 to 80). While antibiotics can be helpful and sometimes lifesaving, the poll also revealed the tendency for dangerous habits that can undermine their usefulness.
For example, one in five respondents admitted to using leftover antibiotics instead of scheduling an appointment with their doctor. This can be risky for a number of reasons, including by not limited to:
- Antibiotics don’t work on some types of infections, so the patient will continue to be sick and might get worse
- Antibiotics shouldn’t be taken by some people, in certain situations, due to medical conditions or other prescription medications they’re taking
- Using antibiotics when they are not necessary can cause the propagation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria
- Symptoms might not be an infection at all, so failing to visit the doctor could mean that a serious medical condition goes undetected
In addition, two out of five respondents said that they expect their physician to prescribe antibiotics for a cold. Unfortunately, these medications don’t work on viral illnesses. Taking antibiotics when they aren’t warranted can lead to antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections. At the very least, the illness will not be cured, and the patient will remain sick.
One in eight respondents said that they held onto leftover antibiotics in case they or a family member need the medication in the future. It is important to remember that sharing medications with someone for whom they are not prescribed can put that person in danger if they take a medication for which that antibiotic can be contraindicated (should not be taken together). Some people can be also allergic to antibiotics, which is another reason these medications should only be distributed by prescription.
Always discard any leftover prescription medications safely, so that you aren’t tempted to use them inappropriately in the future. When you or a loved one develops symptoms, however seemingly minor, resist the urge to assume it is “only” a minor illness that can be treated by leftover medications. Instead, make an appointment with your healthcare provider to receive safe medical care and the right prescription for your situation.