Can You Get Antibiotics Over the Counter?

By Alicia Wooldridge, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
July 22, 2022

Antibiotics are prescribed quite frequently throughout a person’s life, so you’re probably wondering why you can’t just buy them over the counter. 

From treating STIs to UTIs, ear infections to stomach infections – antibiotics are some of the most powerful and quickest remedies against harmful bacteria.

Because there are so many different types of ever-evolving bacteria out there and just as many antibiotics to target them, you need a healthcare professional to prescribe the right one for you. 

This article will explore which antibiotics are available over-the-counter and which ones need a prescription.

We’ll also look at what ailments can be treated by antibiotics and when you’d need to consult a medical expert. 

Can You Get Antibiotics Over the Counter?

Antibiotics, also known as antibacterials, are powerful medications that destroy bacteria or slow their growth.

While some antibiotics are available over-the-counter, most are only available in the United States through a prescription by a healthcare practitioner. 

Your healthcare provider will ask you about your symptoms and medical history and may sometimes run additional tests to find the right antibiotics for you and your ailment.

Additionally, if you have an immediate question, K Health can help you get the best treatment by connecting you with a healthcare professional right away, from wherever you are.

Need antibiotics?

Our physicians can prescribe antibiotics for various conditions, but only if necessary. Chat with a provider to see which treatment option is best for you.

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Antibiotics Available Over the Counter

Some topical antibiotics can be purchased as over-the-counter (OTC) medicines.

However, it is always recommended that you consult a medical expert before purchasing and using any medication. 

Topical antibiotics are used to treat skin wounds, scrapes, scratches, and minor burns.

They are available in ointment, cream, spray, or powder forms and are used to prevent infection in topical skin ailments.

Some over-the-counter topical antibiotics include:

  • Bacitracin (Neosporin)
  • Polymyxin (Polysporin)
  • Neomycin (Neosporin Plus Pain Relief)
  • Pramoxine 
  • Benzoyl peroxide (Proactiv)

Using topical antibiotics when they are not required can do more damage than good and leave your skin overly irritated.

This is why it is essential to use any antibiotics after consulting with a medical professional, even if they are available over-the-counter. 

Commonly Prescribed Antibiotics

There are hundreds of types of antibiotics, each with different indications for treatment, and they are each available under varying brand names as well.

Each antibiotic is designed to be effective against specific bacteria, which is why your medical provider will need to determine your ailment to prescribe the most appropriate antibiotic for you.

Antibiotics are usually specific for the type of bacteria being treated and, in general, cannot be interchanged from one bacterial infection to another.

However, some antibiotics are prescribed more often than others as they may be able to effectively fight multiple types of bacteria at once.

Healthcare providers in the US prescribe over 201 million antibiotic prescriptions annually. 

Some common antibiotics prescribed include:

Amoxicillin

This penicillin-type antibiotic fights bacteria and can be prescribed alongside other medications and antibiotics to treat an infection.

Ceftriaxone

This antibiotic is sometimes given before surgery to help prevent infections. It is prescribed for more serious bacterial infections such as pneumonia or meningitis. 

Levofloxacin

This antibiotic belongs to a group of drugs called fluoroquinolones and is used to treat many bacterial infections, including bronchitis and respiratory infections.

Due to its multiple side effects, including headaches, numbness, and effects on mental health, it is prescribed usually only when no other alternative is available.   

Metronidazole

This antibiotic is most often prescribed to treat digestive and vaginal bacterial infections.

It can also be used to treat sexually transmitted diseases (STIs) that are caused by a parasite, and a popular brand name for metronidazole is Flagyl

Clindamycin

This antibiotic stops bacteria’s growth and is quite commonly used to treat rare or severe infections. 

Cephalexin

This is a cephalosporin antibiotic used to treat infections that are caused by bacteria, such as UTIs, ear infections, and bone infections.

It is widely prescribed for adults and children alike. 

Doxycycline

Doxycycline is used to treat many ailments, including bacterial pneumonia, acne, chlamydia, Lyme disease, cholera, and syphilis.

This antibiotic is sometimes known to have anti-inflammatory properties as well.

This makes it a useful drug in dermatology infection prevention as well. 

There exist many more antibiotics, and you should ask your healthcare provider for a comprehensive list of antibiotics that are available to you and for your illness. 

What Antibiotics Are Used For

Do not share your antibiotic or take antibiotics medication that was prescribed for someone else.

It is also important not to save an antibiotic to use the next time you get sick, as it may not be the right medication for your illness each time.

Some common illnesses or infections that antibiotics can treat include:

Do I Need a Prescription for Antibiotics?

Yes, you will need a prescription to purchase a majority of antibiotics.

Even if you do not require a prescription, it is recommended that you speak to a healthcare professional for guidance and advice before using any antibiotics or medication. 

Each medication, especially antibiotics, works differently for each person.

The side effects you get from one may be completely different from the side effects someone else gets from the same medication.

It is important to follow the dosage guidance from your prescription and discard the medication once you are done.

Do not exceed your dosage, and if you forget to take a dose, ask your medical provider how to proceed.

Completing your full course of antibiotic prescription is recommended for your infection to heal completely, even if you start feeling better halfway. 

Taking antibiotics when you do not need them can result in your body developing antibiotic resistance.

The overuse of antibiotics makes resistant bacteria more common, so it is essential to use antibiotics only when prescribed. 

How To Get Antibiotics

When you speak to your medical provider, they will ask you some questions and may conduct a physical examination to diagnose your infection and find out what is causing it.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention advises that you should not pressure your medical provider to prescribe you antibiotics.

The professional will know when you need antibiotics and decide the best treatment option for your ailment.

If you get an antibiotic prescription, speak with your insurance provider to ensure it is covered in your plan.

If it is not, you may ask your healthcare provider for an alternative.

Compare costs and availability at different pharmacies to find the best option for you. 

Need antibiotics?

Our physicians can prescribe antibiotics for various conditions, but only if necessary. Chat with a provider to see which treatment option is best for you.

Get Started

When to Seek Medical Attention 

As mentioned in this guide, you will need a prescription from a medical professional to get most antibiotics. 

While antibiotics are an effective treatment for most types of bacterial infections, you might not always need them.

In rare cases, and if antibiotics are used too often, they can get rid of good bacteria in your gut alongside the bad, which is why a side effect of antibiotics is diarrhea or vomiting.

If you think an antibiotic is not working for your body or is giving you severe side effects, then seek medical attention immediately. 

How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can access online urgent care with K Health?

Check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed, text with a healthcare provider in minutes. 

K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and is based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the closest over-the-counter drug to antibiotics?
Since a majority of antibiotics are prescription drugs, it is important to consult a medical provider before taking them or taking anything like them. Similar topical drugs include Neosporin, Neomycin, and Polysporin.
Can I get antibiotics without seeing a doctor?
Most antibiotic drugs are prescription drugs; however, some topical antibiotics can be purchased as over-the-counter (OTC) medicines. If you think you have a bacterial infection, seek help from a medical provider about whether a prescription or OTC antibiotic is right for you.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Alicia Wooldridge, MD

Dr. Alicia Wooldridge is a board certified Family Medicine physician with over a decade of experience.

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