Why It's Important To Finish Antibiotics

Finishing a course of antibiotics can be difficult, depending on the medications used. For example, ciprofloxacin — an antibiotic commonly prescribed for urinary tract infections (UTIs) — may cause tendinitis, nerve damage, seizures, depression, insomnia, and other serious side effects, warns the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Some of these issues can occur after just one dose. Other antibiotics may cause diarrhea, headaches, back pain, fever, or yeast infections, among other side effects, according to clinical research published in the journal Canadian Family Physician.

These drugs can be harsh on the stomach, and some are strong enough to affect your daily life. Unfortunately, clinicians often prescribe long courses of antibiotics just to stay on the safe side. This practice may contribute to antibiotic resistance and increase the risk of side effects. A study conducted on 6,500 patients found that nearly two-thirds of them received antibiotic courses that were longer than necessary, notes a 2019 review featured in Annals of Internal Medicine. Each additional day of treatment increased the risk of adverse reactions by 5%.

Researchers say that longer antibiotic courses are not necessarily more effective. On the contrary, this approach can lead to superinfections, such as candidiasis, UTIs, and Clostridium difficile infections, says the organization ReAct. Yet most experts recommend finishing the treatment, even if your symptoms are gone. 

What happens if you don't finish all your antibiotics?

Antibiotics are commonly prescribed for UTIs and other bacterial diseases. Unfortunately, they're often misused, which can lead to antibiotic-resistant illnesses. The same can happen if you don't finish the treatment, says Johns Hopkins Medicine. However, some studies suggest that shorter antibiotic courses can work just as well as longer ones, according to clinical evidence published in Critical Care. This brings up the question, is it really necessary to finish all your antibiotics?

The answer depends on several factors, including the condition being treated. Antibiotic treatment may relieve a sore throat and other symptoms within days, but this doesn't mean the bacteria are gone. If you stop the treatment too soon, symptoms may return and the remaining bacteria may develop antibiotic resistance, warns the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). What's more, some infections do require weeks or months of treatment. For example, patients with chronic bladder infections may need to take low-dose antibiotics for six to 24 months, notes the Mayo Clinic

The FDA recommends taking your antibiotics as prescribed. Don't just stop the treatment once your symptoms have subsided. If you would prefer a shorter course of treatment, ask your doctor. If you experience any concerning side effects while taking antibiotics, tell your doctor immediately. Your doctor may advise that you stop taking that antibiotic and instead complete your treatment with another one.