For years, health experts have warned that it's important to take the full course of antibiotics that your doctor prescribes for you — whether that's one week or 10 days. But one team of researchers argues that this may not be necessary, and in fact, it may be harmful to your health to continue taking medication once your body has fought off the illness.
Professor Martin Llewelyn from the Brighton and Sussex Medical School in Brighton, England, recently wrote an opinion piece in the British Medical Journal that was backed by nine other medical professionals in specialties such as microbiology and infectious diseases from universities throughout the United Kingdom. Llewelyn and his colleagues argued that the courses for antibiotic prescriptions currently used are not based on scientific studies but on the fear that shorter courses might promote the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. On the contrary, they assert that studies have found that using antibiotics for longer than necessary might be more likely to promote antibiotic resistance than shorter courses of medicine.
According to Llewelyn and his team, there are few, if any, research studies that identify the exact duration that antibiotics should be taken for various illnesses. Standard courses of treatment have been set with an eye toward wiping out the bacteria and therefore erring on the side of using too much medication rather than too little.
"Historically, antibiotic courses were set by precedent, driven by fear of undertreatment, with less concern about overuse," noted Llewelyn.
The result is the unnecessary use of antibiotics taken long after an illness has been treated. And it's this overuse that could lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant superbugs, not to mention the individual toll that antibiotics take on the body, destroying not only the harmful bacteria but also the "good" bacteria that help your body function.
Llewelyn and his team are not against the use of antibiotics; they are arguing for the need for more comprehensive studies to give doctors better information about the most effective course of medication. In the meantime, they're asking medical experts, policy makers and educators to drop the "complete the course" message about antibiotics.
"There is evidence that, in many situations, stopping antibiotics sooner is a safe and effective way to reduce antibiotic overuse," said Llewelyn.
Of course, if you're taking any medication, check in with your own doctor about the length of treatment prescribed. But it wouldn't hurt to ask additional questions about how long that course of treatment should last.