Antibiotic treatments play a crucial role in fighting harmful bacterial infections. Not only are they prescribed to treat many infections caused by bacteria, but they can also help slow and prevent the spread of diseases.

However, an antibiotic treatment needs to be fully completed to help ensure it effectively eliminates bacteria. If you have ever received antibiotics, you might have noticed a label on the bottle stating the importance of completing the treatment—even if you feel better before you finish the prescription.

If you have ever wondered why that is, we will look at the key reasons below. Before we do, it’s important to discuss what exactly antibiotics are.

What Are Antibiotics, and How do They Work?

Many consider the discovery of antibiotics to be one of the most important medical breakthroughs in history. These drugs have saved countless lives and revolutionized the way we treat infections, and they were discovered by accident.

In 1928, Alexander Fleming was studying cultures of staphylococcal bacteria when he noticed that one of his Petri dishes had been contaminated with mold.[1] Upon further examination, he found that the mold had killed the bacteria in the dish. This discovery led to the realization that this mold could be isolated, and he identified the mold as a member of the Penicillium genus.

Through further research, he found the “juice” that the mold produced—which he named “penicillin”— was effective against a wide variety of Gram-positive pathogens which cause many harmful diseases from pneumonia to meningitis, and more.

Today, there are many types of antibiotics, and different types work best for different bacterial infections. Antibiotics work in a variety of ways—they can slow and stop bacterial growth by interfering with reproduction or blocking protein production in bacteria, or they can directly attack the bacteria’s coating.

Many antibiotics work well for killing a variety of bacteria and treating many ailments, but unfortunately some that used to work well for treatment have lost their efficacy, and some no longer work against specific bacteria at all. When antibiotics fail to work against a strain of bacteria, those bacteria are considered to be antibiotic resistant.

Why You Should Fully Complete Your Antibiotic Treatment

There are many reasons why it is crucial always to finish your antibiotics regimen, and to only take specific antibiotics that are prescribed for a specific infection. Stopping treatment early, or taking unprescribed antibiotics for an infection, can have grave consequences.

Bacteria that develop antimicrobial resistance can survive the treatment, reproduce, and cause reinfection that may be more severe and more difficult to treat. Not only can the remaining bacteria cause a more serious reinfection in your body, but these pathogens can spread to others, infecting them with the stronger, more resilient strains of bacteria that are better at resisting treatment.

These bacteria become stronger over time and become more difficult to kill. This is referred to antibiotic resistance, and it is one of the most urgent health problems the world currently faces.

Unfortunately, many people do not complete their full course of antibiotic treatment, and there are a lot of misconceptions about antibiotic resistance. 76% of respondents to a survey about antibiotics conducted by the WHO believe that antibiotic resistance happens when the body becomes resistant to antibiotics. However, it is the bacteria itself that becomes resistant, which can make these infections more difficult to treat for others.

Due to these types of misconceptions, some may not consider completing full antibiotic treatments to be important, and they may decide that once they feel better the treatment no longer needs to continue. Many believe this decision only affects them, and do not realize that they may be contributing to more resilient pathogens that can spread and harm others. As these pathogens become resistant, novel antibiotic development is required, which may be a slow process.

Disposing of Leftover Antibiotics

In some cases, such as adverse reactions, your doctor may recommend that you stop your treatment early (and you should only stop your treatment under a doctor’s supervision). If you do stop your treatment regimen early, it is especially important to properly dispose of the remaining medication.

You can do so at a local drug collection site if there is one nearby. The FDA has put together a helpful resource to help you find a local drug disposal location.

If you do not properly dispose of your medication, there is a chance it can end up in places throughout our ecosystem where it does not belong, which can inadvertently contribute to further issues with antibiotic resistance.

Key Takeaway: Antimicrobial Resistance

Antibiotics are the miracle of modern medicine and have saved millions of lives, but these treatments need to be properly administered and completed. Finishing your treatment regimen is essential for the health and safety of yourself, your loved ones, and even strangers you encounter.

Though you may feel better before you have completed your antibiotic treatment, not finishing your prescription can potentially lead to antibiotic resistance, which can negatively impact your health and contribute to a problem that continues to grow in severity throughout the world.