Antibiotic resistance

Antibiotics are medicines used to treat bacterial infections. Antibiotics are losing their effectiveness at an increasing rate. This is known as antibiotic resistance. In Northern Ireland, 1.8 million prescriptions for antibiotics are written every year, many of which are not needed and can cause more harm than good.

How antibiotic resistance threatens health

Antibiotics are essential medicines used to treat bacterial infections in people and animals. Bacteria are living organisms that can mutate and evolve and can develop ways to survive the effects of an antibiotic and become ‘resistant’.  

The more you take antibiotics, the more likely bacteria are to become resistant to treatment. If antibiotic resistance increases:

  • many infectious diseases could become untreatable
  • medical and surgical procedures, such as a hip replacement, could become more risky in the future

Antibiotic resistance has already led to the emergence of strains of bacteria that have developed resistance to many different antibiotics (superbugs).  These types of infections can be serious and challenging to treat and are becoming an increasing cause of disability and death across the world. 

The biggest worry is that new strains of bacteria may emerge that can't be effectively treated by any existing antibiotics.

Using antibiotics to treat health conditions or illnesses

Most coughs, sore throats, sinusitis and middle-ear infection get better without antibiotics.  The length of time you would commonly experience symptoms from these complaints are:

Cough or bronchitis 21 days
Common cold 14 days
Sore throat 7 to 8 days
Sinusitis 14 to 21 days
Middle ear infection 8 days

A health professional may prescribe antibiotics to treat certain bacterial infections such as:

Or where infections:

  • are unlikely to clear up without antibiotics
  • could infect others unless treated
  • could take too long to clear without treatment
  • carry a risk of more serious complications

You can get further advice by speaking with your pharmacist or GP

Additionally, many medical treatments depend on having effective antibiotics, which can be lifesaving to the person, including:

Health conditions or illnesses antibiotics cannot treat

Antibiotics do not treat viral infections such as colds or flu. Taking antibiotics won’t help your symptoms and may cause side-effects, such as diarrhoea or thrush. Ask your pharmacist or GP for remedies that may help to relieve your symptoms or for self-care advice.

Reducing antibiotic prescriptions

Everyone has a role in tackling antibiotic resistance. You can help reduce the amount of antibiotics prescribed and threat of increasing resistance by:

  • practicing good hand hygiene to prevent the spread of infection
  • using tissues for your nose and disposing of these after use
  • not taking antibiotics for infections your body can fight on its own, such as colds or flu
  • if you are worried about your symptoms, speaking with your pharmacist or GP who will be able to advise you on the best treatment
  • only taking antibiotics prescribed by a health professional and take these as directed
  • finishing the full course of antibiotics even if you feel better
  • not saving antibiotics to take the next time you’re unwell
  • not giving your antibiotics to anyone who is unwell

To read the UK government’s report on how to reduce unnecessary prescribing and help prevent bloodstream infections, go to:

To learn more about hand hygiene advice, go to:

Sharing antibiotics

You shouldn’t give your antibiotics to other people.  Your antibiotics might not be suitable for treating their illness and may react with other medications they are taking. Some antibiotics are not suitable to take if you have certain medical conditions, or are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Taking the wrong medicine might also cause a delay to the person getting the right treatment and may allow bacteria to multiply.  It is important you read the information leaflet before taking any medication and discuss concerns with your pharmacist or GP.

Antibiotic Guardian

The Antibiotic Guardian website has information about:

  • treating cold and flu symptoms
  • caring for children when they’re unwell
  • hand hygiene

To read more and sign the Antibiotic Guardian pledge, go to:

More useful links

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