Leftover Antibiotics

This week I want to revisit a topic I discussed almost 2 years ago.  I’d like to talk about my number-one pet peeve.  This is the one thing that is guaranteed to make me have to count to ten in order to keep from blowing my stack.

This is when people come in with cold symptoms and say “I had 2 doses of leftover antibiotics so I started those last night.”

Clearly some folks haven’t gotten the message because I still hear this.

Leftover.  Antibiotics.  So wrong on so many levels I hardly know where to start.

There are AT LEAST 4 things wrong with taking leftover antibiotics for cold symptoms.

  1. Antibiotics ONLY help bacterial infections.  There is a reason antibiotics are not over-the-counter, and that’s because it’s not always easy to tell when a cold is just a cold and when antibiotics are indicated.  Pneumonia, strep throat and bacterial sinus infections need antibiotics.  Colds and many cases of bronchitis do NOT benefit from antibiotics.
  2. Is it a cold or a partially treated sinus infection?  When you take a day or two of antibiotics before you go to the doctor, you’ve completely mucked up our exam.  Strep throat may come up negative on testing but need more antibiotics for complete therapy.  You take away all my expertise by using antibiotics before coming to see me.
  3. Two days of leftover antibiotics WILL do more harm than good.  There is zero percent chance that two days of antibiotics will eradicate a bacterial infection.  However, the chance that you will have a side effect from the antibiotic (such as a rash, diarrhea or yeast infection) is definitely more than zero.  Not to mention making your doctor’s eyes flash red and her head spin around.
  4. Why did you have leftover antibiotics in the first place?!  If you are prescribed 10 days of antibiotics you need to take them all!  Taking less than the entire prescription runs the risk that the infection isn’t completely gone.  It also increases the risk of developing bacterial antibiotic resistance, which is no joke.

If you are prescribed antibiotics for a viral infection, do yourself (AND your doctor) a favor and take them until they are gone.  If your doctor needs to change the prescription to a different antibiotic, throw away the rest of the first one as soon as you’re well again.  Do NOT save them.  They are of no use anymore.

If you get sick and are concerned about strep throat or pneumonia, get to the doctor right away.  Expect cold symptoms to get worse for 3-4 days and be pretty miserable, then gradually resolve over 7-10 days (this is the normal course of a cold).  Obviously if you have a high fever, severe headache, shortness of breath, or chest pain you should be seen.

If you’re not sure, by all means see the doctor.  That’s what we’re there for, and often we can help you feel better (with cough syrup or a steroid treatment) even if you don’t need an antibiotic.  But for goodness’s sake don’t decide to get a head start and take antibiotic pills that you (or someone else) had squirreled away from last year.

QUESTION: Can you think of any other reasons why someone should not take leftover antibiotics before seeing the doctor?


4 thoughts on “Leftover Antibiotics

  1. Oh, my goodness!! Your head should spin and your eyes turn red if someone comes and says this !! No counting to ten before speaking !! Antibiotic resistance is dangerous for us all !! We don’t need new germs to have mutated to beat the antibiotics!! Emphatic education here is a must!! Thank you for this repeat. It would be nice if you hadn’t had to, but I recommend it whenever you hear somebody say such a foolish thing.

  2. Concerns that the meds might be leftover for a long time. Is the strength compromised? Lets get real most people do not clean out the medicine cabinet the way we should.

  3. This is my 88 year old mother and I get so angry with her! She just blows me off with an it works for me! She has mitral valve so her dentist gives them to her ahead of time. But then she calls and asks for more before her appointment. I have no clue why the dentist hasn’t balked on this. She will never change.

  4. This is a pet peeve of mine, too, for the reasons you stated & many more. Antibiotics (like all meds) expire. Antibiotics can be specific to the illness; taking the meds that were prescribed for your eye infection won’t help your UTI. & a 250 lb man prob won’t benefit from taking his 110 lb wife’s Rx which, as you stated before, should have been taken till completion anyway. Another antibiotic pet peeve of mine? Prescribing antibiotics prophylactically. A girl I used to work with talked her doctor into prescribing them for her daughter who was prone to ear infections. She kept refilling the Rx &—-no surprise here—her daughter developed an immunity to it. & a recurring yeast infection.

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