Antibiotics are medications that can treat bacterial infections. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates antibiotics. However, not all antibiotics require a prescription from a medical provider. Over-the-counter (OTC) antibiotics are available for the treatment of certain bacterial infections.
OTC Antibiotics for Infections
Some OTC antibiotics are topical medications that can be applied to the skin of the affected area. For instance, some antibiotic creams can be used to treat skin infections or wounds. Here are some examples of OTC topical antibiotics:
Bacitracin – This medication is available in the form of an ointment and is used to treat skin infections. Bacitracin is effective against gram-positive bacteria but inactive against gram-negative bacteria. Hence, it cannot treat infections caused by gram-negative bacteria.
Neomycin – This antibiotic is often combined with other medications like polymyxin B and bacitracin to create a broad-spectrum topical antibiotic ointment. This medication can be used to treat skin infections such as impetigo.
Mupirocin – This antibiotic ointment is used to treat skin infections, including impetigo and folliculitis. Mupirocin is particularly effective against Staphylococcus aureus, which is a common bacterium that can cause skin infections.
Antibiotics for Internal Infections
Other OTC antibiotics are taken orally to treat internal infections. For instance, some antibiotics are available for the treatment of urinary tract infections (UTIs). UTIs are common infections that occur when bacteria enter the urinary tract and multiply. Here are some examples of OTC antibiotics for UTIs:
Ampicillin – This medication is a derivative of penicillin, an antibiotic that was discovered in 1928. Like penicillin, ampicillin disrupts the cell walls of bacteria, causing them to burst. Ampicillin is effective against gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria, including those that cause UTIs.
Trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole (Bactrim) – This medication is a combination of two antibiotics, trimethoprim and sulfamethoxazole. It is used to treat UTIs caused by bacteria such as Escherichia coli, Klebsiella pneumoniae, and Proteus mirabilis.
Phenazopyridine (Pyridium) – This medication is not an antibiotic, but it can help relieve the symptoms of a UTI, such as burning and pain. Phenazopyridine works by numbing the urinary tract, making urination less painful.
Are OTC Antibiotics Safe?
OTC antibiotics can be safe and effective when used properly. However, it is important to note that they are not appropriate for all infections. For instance, antibiotics are ineffective against viral infections such as the common cold and the flu. Using antibiotics unnecessarily can contribute to antibiotic resistance, which is when bacteria become resistant to the antibiotics designed to treat them.
Furthermore, some people may develop allergies or experience side effects from antibiotics. If you are allergic to a certain type of antibiotic, it is important to avoid that medication and any other medications that are similar to it. Common side effects of antibiotics include stomach upset, diarrhea, and yeast infections.
It is important to follow the directions on the packaging when using OTC antibiotics. If you are unsure about how to use an antibiotic, or if you experience any adverse effects, consult a medical provider.
When to See a Medical Provider
If you have symptoms of an infection, such as fever, pain, or swelling, it is important to seek medical attention to determine the cause and receive proper treatment. A medical provider can diagnose the infection, determine if antibiotics are necessary, and prescribe an appropriate medication.
If you are prescribed an antibiotic, it is important to take it as directed, even if you begin to feel better before you finish the medication. Stopping an antibiotic prematurely can contribute to antibiotic resistance. It is also important to finish the entire course of antibiotics, even if your symptoms improve.
Prevention is key when it comes to avoiding bacterial infections. There are several steps you can take to reduce your risk of infection:
Practice good hand hygiene by washing your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
Avoid touching your face, especially your mouth, nose, and eyes.
Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, and dispose of used tissues properly.
Avoid sharing food, drinks, or utensils with others.
Stay up-to-date on vaccinations, such as the flu vaccine or the pneumococcal vaccine.
OTC antibiotics can be effective for the treatment of certain bacterial infections. However, it is important to use them properly and only when necessary. If you are unsure about the cause of your symptoms, or if you experience adverse effects from an antibiotic, seek medical attention. By taking steps to prevent infections, you can reduce your risk of developing a bacterial infection in the first place.