When you feel sick, you try to do everything you can to get better –rest, drink fluids, take over-the-courter medication and pay a visit to your doctor. And, in some cases, something stronger: antibiotics.

“Antibiotics are a type of antimicrobial that treats and prevents bacterial infections,” said James J. McKenna, D.O. “Antibiotics either kill or inhibit the growth of bacteria.”

When you’re sick and your doctor prescribes you an antibiotic, the relief often comes quickly. Once you’ve had an antibiotic stop an illness in its tracks and get you back to your healthy self, it’s no wonder you’d request one the next time you get sick.

“When antibiotics are used the right way, they can save lives – they can treat bronchitis, pneumonia, strep throat, ear infection, and pinkeye,” Dr. McKenna said.

However, antibiotics can’t treat every illness and can actually do more harm than good if not used properly.

“Antibiotics treat infections caused by bacteria – they don’t fight infections caused by viruses such as most coughs, colds, sore throats, and the flu, which are viral,” Dr. McKenna said. “A Viral infection is three days coming, three days very active and three days leaving without treatment.”

Taking antibiotics for a viral illness won’t cure it and won’t make you feel better. More importantly, taking antibiotics when you have a viral infection can be harmful to your health.

“When taken improperly, antibiotics, like any other prescription drug, pose the risk of unnecessary and harmful side effects,” Dr. McKenna said. “In fact, improperly taking antibiotics may contribute to antibiotic resistance.”

Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria outsmart drugs – when bacteria come into contact over and over again with antibiotics, they may change in order to survive. When this happens, bacteria are able to resist the effects of an antibiotic and continue to cause harm.

“New strains of bacteria are resistant to some types of antibiotics. That means if you get an infection with one of these bacteria, your doctor may have to try several types of drugs to find one that works,” Dr. McKenna said. “In the meantime, you could get a lot sicker waiting for the one that can treat your infection.”

Here’s how you can approach antibiotic use responsibly.

Listen to your doctor.

“Your doctor will tell you if you’re sick because of a viral or bacterial infection and prescribe you antibiotics if you need them,” Dr. McKenna said. “Patient demand for a quick fix is driving the antibiotic resistance. Studies show that when physicians take the time to explain that antibiotics won't work with viruses the patient is satisfied.”

If you’re given antibiotics, follow the instructions carefully.

“When you’re prescribed antibiotics, finish all of the medicine your doctor advises you to take and stick to a regimented schedule,” Dr. McKenna explained. If you start feeling better a few days after starting antibiotics but still have some left over, don’t stop taking them – this reduces the chance that there will be bacteria left in your system that could potentially become resistant.

Never take antibiotics that haven’t been prescribed to you. If for some reason you have antibiotics left over from a previous infection, don’t take them unless your doctor gives you the go ahead. Similarly, don’t take anyone else’s antibiotics or give yours to someone.

“Taking leftover antibiotics may not work on what’s making you sick now. And, if they do work, you likely don’t have enough to completely kill all of the bacteria in your body,” Dr. McKenna said. “That means you won’t get better and you’ll increase the chance that bacteria will become resistant.”