When you suspect that you have an infection, you may think you can go to the pharmacy and pick up some antibiotics to treat it.
But you probably shouldn’t waste your time: You cannot buy the vast majority of antibiotics over the counter.
See, while these important medications help fight off bacterial infections and save lives around the world every day, using them too often or for the wrong illnesses can cause them to become ineffective.
So, to obtain most antibiotics, you need a prescription from a healthcare provider.
In this article, I’ll break this all down in detail.
First I’ll discuss the most common antibiotics, what they treat, and how to use them.
Then I’ll explain antibiotic resistance and the different ways to get antibiotics.
Finally, I’ll cover when you may want to see a doctor about antibiotics.
What Are Antibiotics?
Antibiotics are a class of powerful medications that eradicate bacteria or slow their growth.
Also called antibacterials, these medications can cure infections caused by bacteria.
Antibiotics are used to treat a variety of bacterial infections, including:
Some of the most common groups of antibiotics include:
- Penicillins: These treat everything from UTIs to skin infections to respiratory tract infections.
- Tetracyclines: These are often prescribed for common conditions like acne, skin infections, tick-borne illnesses, respiratory infections, and more.
- Cephalosporins: These can treat a variety of infections, including pneumonia, meningitis, and ear infections.
- Macrolides: A common alternative for people who are allergic to penicillin, these are used for some types of pneumonia, STDs, and other infections.
- Fluoroquinolones: These versatile antibiotics treat a variety of skin, sinus, joint, and urinary infections. However, fluoroquinolones such as ciprofloxacin and levofloxacin can interact with many common medications and may have some serious side effects.
- Sulfonamides: The most common sulfonamide is trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole (Bactrim, Septra). Sulfonamides work by stopping or slowing the growth of bacteria and are often used for UTIs and skin infections.
Antibiotic resistance is a growing issue both nationally and internationally.
Put simply, the overprescribing and improper use of antibiotics worldwide has led to some bacteria learning how to survive against the most powerful antibiotics designed to kill them off.
Every year, antibiotic-resistant bacteria infect more than two million people in the U.S., often leading to hospitalizations or, in some cases, death.
To fight antibiotic resistance, the CDC designated better-informed use and prescription of antibiotics as a national priority.
You can do your part by taking antibiotics as prescribed, not sharing your antibiotics with anyone or saving them, and never pressuring a healthcare provider to prescribe antibiotics.
How Can You Get Antibiotics?
Most antibiotic drugs are prescription drugs, but some topical antibiotics can be purchased as over-the-counter (OTC) medicines.
In the United States, oral, intravenous (IV), and intramuscular (IM) antibiotics are only available via prescription, so you need to speak to a medical professional to obtain them.
Your provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and may run additional tests to determine which antibiotic, if any, is right for you.
Over the counter
Some topical antibiotics used to treat minor cuts, scrapes, and burns are available OTC at many drug stores.
- Bacitracin (Neosporin)
- Polymyxin (Polysporin)
- Neomycin (Neosporin Plus Pain Relief)
- Benzoyl peroxide (Proactiv)
When to See a Doctor
If you think you may have signs or symptoms of a bacterial infection, talk to your provider about whether a prescription or OTC antibiotic is right for you.
The sooner you receive the appropriate diagnosis, the sooner you can receive the proper treatment and start to feel better.
How K Health Can Help
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Frequently Asked Questions
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.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
The End of Antibiotics? (2018).
Strep Throat: All You Need to Know. (2021).
What Are Over-the-Counter Medicines? (2017).