When we’re sick, we usually hit up the doc’s office in hopes of being sent on our way with an Rx for antibiotics. After all, taking meds usually means we’ll be on the mend quickly. But it’s not always that simple.
Antibiotics are sometimes necessary, but they definitely come with their own set of complications. For example, they can throw your gut majorly out of whack. Here, the lowdown on how antibiotics work, and how to keep them from hurting your stomach.
How Antibiotics Work
Antibiotics work by targeting and killing bacteria in your body. That’s NBD, since bacteria sound pretty gross, right? Well, not really. Bacteria get a bad rap, says Myers Hurt, M.D., general physician at Diamond Physicians in Dallas, Texas. It turns out there are actually tons of good bacteria (microorganisms) living in your gut and your gut lining—and they actually work to bolster your immune system, he explains.
If you’re sniffling and sneezing your way through a cold (which is caused by a virus) or itching yourself like crazy thanks to a gnarly rash (which may be fungal), then antibiotics won’t do a thing for you. They work their magic, though, when you’re dealing with a bacterial infection like strep throat, bacterial bronchitis, or a urinary tract infection, says David Bernstein, M.D., chief of the division of hepatology at Northwell Health in Manhasset, New York. “You should only use antibiotics as directed by your physician to treat bacterial infections. Period.” Bernstein says.
The thing is, antibiotics are so gosh darn good at killing bacteria that they destroy the good bacteria in your body along with whatever bad stuff is making you sick, says Hurt. In killing off the good stuff, antibiotics disrupt the normal flora of your gastrointestinal tract, potentially leaving you with issues like nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea, says Jamie J. Hardy, board-certified pharmacist.
Hardy explains that antibiotics can also affect the bacteria in the vaginal tract, which can leave women with another rough symptom: a yeast infection.
If you don’t take them properly and sparingly, though, the bacteria in your system can actually develop a resistance to antibiotics, says Bernstein. In addition to only taking them to treat bacterial infections, you should finish out the full course of antibiotics even if you start feeling better a couple days in. When you quit before finishing your prescription, your infection might just pop back up, says Bernstein.
How to Take Care of Your Tummy on Antibiotics
So, what can you do if antibiotics wreak havoc on your stomach? Bernstein first recommends taking your antibiotics with food to help offset any stomach irritation.
Of course, when it comes to gut health, you’ve probably heard the “P” word—probiotics—thrown around. “Probiotics are certain types of beneficial bacteria that replace those in your gut flora killed off by the antibiotics,” says Faisal Tawwab, M.D., family practice specialist at Multicare Physicians in Florida. You can find probiotics in fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut, or in supplement form.
The two most common types of bacteria you’ll find in probiotic supplements are lactobacillus and bifdobacterium, so you’ll probably see them on most ingredient labels. Just make sure you’re supplementing post-antibiotics in order to repopulate the good gut bacteria your prescription depleted.
If you want to eat your probiotics, Hardy suggests noshing on one to two servings of live culture-containing foods for at least three to five days after you’ve completed your course of treatment.
Just wait at least two hours after popping your antibiotic to eat that yogurt, since the calcium in it may reduce the effectiveness of some antibiotics (called ‘tetracyclines’), Hardy says.