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Antibiotics - Information for patients, carers and visitors


What are antibiotics?

Antibiotics are medicines used to treat infections caused by bacteria. Most bacteria are harmless,but some can cause infections or disease.
Antibiotics work by either killing bacteria or preventing their growth. Different antibiotics are prescribed to treat different kinds of infection.

Antibiotics only work against bacteria— they do not work for colds, and flu which are caused by viruses.

What do I need to know about my antibiotic treatment?

If your doctor prescribes a course of antibiotics you should discuss:

  • why an antibiotic is recommended for you
  • the name and strength of the antibiotic,
  • how to take it (usually taken by mouth) and how long you need to take it for
  • if you have experienced side effects to antibiotics you have had in the past such as rash, swelling of the face, difficulty breathing if you are taking any other medications including complimentary and ‘over-the-counter’ preparations
  • if you have any liver or kidney problems or if you are pregnant or breastfeeding
  • if you are having surgery or a fever following chemotherapy you may receive antibiotics to prevent an infection—known as prophylaxis.

Always follow the directions on the label or patient information leaflet.

Antibiotic resistance

Antibiotic resistance happens when bacteria stop an antibiotic from working effectively.

With few new antibiotics being developed and antibiotic resistance increasing, it is becoming more difficult to treat infections.

One of the main causes of antibiotic resistance is antibiotics being used when they are not needed, for example for colds and flu or not taking them correctly.

Your doctor may say you don’t need antibiotics and suggest other measures to relieve your symptoms.

How could antibiotic resistance affect you?

Misuse of antibiotics put us all at risk. Some types of bacteria have become resistant to many different antibiotics. In the media these bacteria are called ‘superbugs’.

You can help prevent antibiotic resistance by:

  •  telling your doctor that you only want antibiotics if it is really necessary
  • taking antibiotics only when they are prescribed for you and finish the course of antibiotics even if you are feeling better
  • don’t share leftover antibiotics with family or friends
  • take simple steps to avoid infections and prevent them from spreading with good hand hygiene.

Antibiotic resistance is leading to untreatable infection—which can affect anyone, of any age, in any country.


Antibiotics, if prescribed, are not completely free from risk. The most common side effects of antibiotics are:

  • diarrhoea, stomach pain
  • nausea and vomiting
  • skin is more sensitive to sun
  • severe rash.

Antibiotics may also destroy your body’s good bacteria, that help to control overgrowth of microbes including:

  • fungal infection in the mouth or vaginal thrush
  • overgrowth of bacteria in your bowel known as C.difficile causing watery diarrhoea, stomach pain and cramping, fever, loss of appetite.

Certain antibiotics can also have interactions with other medicines such as:

  • blood thinners ‘warfarin’
  • cholesterol lowing agents ‘statins’
  • contraceptive pill
  • traditional medicines, vitamins, herbal remedies.

It is therefore important to tell your doctor or pharmacist if you are taking any of these types of medicines.

If you have concerns while taking antibiotics

Some people can be allergic to antibiotics, particularly penicillin and similar antibiotics such as cephalosporins. Severe allergic reactions are known as anaphylactic reactions which may include:

  • rash
  • swelling of the face and tongue
  • difficulty breathing.

Seek help immediately if you develop any of the above symptoms. It may occur even if you have had the same antibiotic in the past.

Preventing the spread of infection

There are things you can do to protect yourself and others.

  • hand washing is the single most important way to prevent the spread of germs
  • avoid contact with people who have coughs and colds, diarrhoea and vomiting, skin infections or are feeling unwell
  • cover your coughs and sneezes, with a tissue or by sneezing and coughing into your elbow, then clean your hand straight away.

Everyone can be part of the solution

A - Ask 

  • are these antibiotics necessary?
  • how else can i relieve my symptoms?

B - Bacteria

  • understand that antibiotics only work against bacteria – they do not work for colds and flu which are caused by viruses.
  • misuse and overuse of antibiotics is causing antibiotic resistance.
  • antibiotic exposure causes an increased risk of infection with ‘superbugs’.

C - Complete

  • take all your antibiotics exactly as instructed.
  • don’t share leftover antibiotics with family or friends.
  • return left over medication to your pharmacy for disposal.

Your antibiotic treatment

If you develop any symptoms that you are concerned about while taking antibiotics, please inform your treating doctor.

For further information

Ask your doctor, practice nurse or pharmacist.

Mater acknowledges consumer consultation in the development of this patient information.
Mater Doc Num: PI-CLN-410035
Last modified 13/11/2019.
Consumers were consulted in the development of this patient information.
Last consumer engagement date: 12/6/2017
For further translated health information, you can visit healthtranslations.vic.gov.au/ supported by the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services that offers a range of patient information in multiple languages.
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