Woman looking at medicine and antibiotics

Four Things to Know about Antibiotics

Feb 28, 2022 Urgent Care Share:

When you’re sick, you really just want to feel better as soon as possible. And in most cases, the first step to getting better is visiting your primary care doctor or an urgent care clinic.

Many people who see the doctor expect that, for most illnesses, they really just need a prescription for antibiotics. Unfortunately, not all illnesses respond to antibiotics. And if you take antibiotics when you don’t truly need them, they can be harmful to your health.

We’re answering four common questions about antibiotics so that you can better understand how and when antibiotics are used to treat illnesses when you visit an urgent care clinic.

What are antibiotics?

Antibiotics are medications that are designed to kill bacteria. Penicillin, amoxicillin, azithromycin, and cephalexin are all antibiotics that are commonly prescribed, but there are over one hundred antibiotics in use today. Some antibiotics, known as broad-spectrum antibiotics, are effective at killing several different types of bacteria, while other antibiotics are used to fight one specific type of bacteria.

Antibiotics were developed in the early 20th century and have been used to save countless lives. In the time before antibiotics, diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis, as well as infected wounds, were often deadly. Today, antibiotics are now widely available, inexpensive, and effective at treating bacterial infections.

Why do doctors prescribe antibiotics?

You already know that illnesses are caused by germs. And while viruses and bacteria are both germs that can cause you to get sick, they’re actually very different.

Doctors only prescribe antibiotics to treat bacterial infections such as pneumonia, strep throat, urinary tract infections, and skin infections. Before prescribing you a round of antibiotics, your doctor will want to be sure that your illness is truly caused by bacteria.

Not all bacteria cause you to get sick. Good bacteria live all over the inside and outside of your body, especially in your digestive tract and on your skin. It’s the harmful bacteria that causes you to get sick.

For example, if you visit an urgent care clinic with a sore throat and a fever that’s lasted a day or two, your doctor will probably test for several illnesses, including Covid-19, flu, and strep. If you have Covid or another influenza-like illness, antibiotics won’t help you get better. However, if you have strep, your doctor will probably prescribe a broad-spectrum antibiotic to help you avoid further complications.

Painful urination may indicate the presence of a urinary tract infection (UTI), but it’s impossible to know for sure without laboratory testing. Your doctor will culture your urine to test for the presence of bacteria before prescribing you an antibiotic. If no infection is present, your doctor will work to find the cause of your pain and find alternative treatment options.

If your urgent care doctor does prescribe an antibiotic, it’s important to take it as directed until you’ve finished your entire prescription. You shouldn’t skip doses, save medication for a future illness, or share your antibiotic with anyone else. If you don’t complete your course of antibiotics, some of the bacteria you’re trying to kill may survive, giving them the opportunity to mutate and develop antibiotic resistance. This resistance can make it harder for you to get better if you get sick in the future.

Why won't my doctor prescribe antibiotics for a cold?

Your doctor won’t prescribe antibiotics for your cold because colds are caused by viruses, and antibiotics just don’t work on viruses. Even if you have green or yellow snot, your cold won’t get better from antibiotic treatment.

Other common illnesses that are caused by viruses and can’t be treated by antibiotics include:

Antiviral treatments can be used for some viruses, such as the flu, to shorten the duration of your illness. But antivirals aren’t the same as antibiotics. Even though the names are similar, antivirals and antibiotics are different types of medication that work differently in your body.

If you are sick with a virus, remember that your immune system is designed to fight off illnesses. Fluids, rest, and over-the-counter symptom management are the best ways to support your immune system. Your doctor may also recommend other treatments such as a home treatment protocol for Covid-19 or supplements that may shorten the duration of your cold.

Occasionally, you may develop a secondary bacterial infection (such as pneumonia) from a viral illness. If that does occur, you will need an antibiotic to treat the secondary infection. If your symptoms worsen or if you develop new symptoms after seeing your doctor for a viral infection, you may need to follow up with your doctor in a second visit.

Some people believe that their urgent care doctor should prescribe them an antibiotic just in case they need it, or in hopes that it might help. But there can be harmful side effects if you take antibiotics for a viral infection.

Because antibiotics kill all bacteria, both good and bad, antibiotics can eliminate the helpful bacteria in your gut. As a result, many people (even those who are taking antibiotics properly) experience nausea, diarrhea, or an upset stomach while taking antibiotics. Some people also develop uncomfortable rashes while taking antibiotics. But more importantly, needless antibiotic use contributes to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

If your urgent care doctor doesn’t prescribe you an antibiotic at your visit, don’t get upset. Your doctor is committed to doing no harm, and unnecessarily prescribing antibiotics can be harmful to your health.

Why should I care about antibiotic-resistant bacteria?

Bacteria can mutate. Like all living organisms, bacteria are determined to survive. As a result, bacteria develop mutations to help them resist the antibiotics we are using to try to kill them. Essentially, antibiotic resistance leads to superbugs that are stronger than the drugs designed to kill them.1

If you do get sick with a type of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, it can be difficult to treat your illness and kill the bacteria. Unfortunately, you can’t always tell if your infection is caused by bacteria that resist antibiotics. Your doctor may need to try a few antibiotics if your infection does not respond to your initial treatment.

MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is a common type of antibiotic-resistant staph bacteria that can cause infections in your skin. Staph bacteria live on your skin and only cause issues if the bacteria gets under your skin. Papercuts, pimples, or broken skin due to rashes can all provide an entry point for staph.

Symptoms of a staph infection include red, swollen skin that can be warm or painful to the touch. Your skin may also be filled with pus, and you may have a fever. Staph infections can occur at any age. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to know if your skin infection is caused by staph or MRSA. MRSA infections are still treatable, but not all antibiotics will work against MRSA.

Other types of antibiotic-resistant bacteria already exist, while others are developing new antibiotic resistance. If we want to be able to continue to treat illnesses that are caused by bacteria, it’s essential to cooperate with doctors who carefully prescribe antibiotics and to take antibiotics only as directed.

MedHelp urgent care doctors are committed to treating every patient like family. When our doctors see patients, their goal is to prescribe appropriate and effective treatments for whatever illness they may have. Your doctor is always ready to explain their treatment decisions and is happy to answer any questions you have about their recommendations.

Get Well Soon

At MedHelp urgent care clinics, our doctors are dedicated to treating every patient like family. Our five Birmingham clinics are open seven days a week with extended hours on weekdays, since illnesses rarely happen during regular business hours.


1 CDC: Antibiotic/Antimicrobial Resistance. Retrieved 15 February, 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/drugresist...