Sometimes rashes and surgical wounds become infected with bacteria. Doctors treat these infections with antibiotics, which are medicines that can kill bacteria.
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However, doctors may prescribe antibiotics even when there is no infection. Most of the time, that’s not useful and it can do more harm than good. Here’s why:
Eczema causes dry, itchy, red skin. People with eczema often have high amounts of bacteria on their skin, but that doesn’t mean they have an infection. Even so, some doctors treat eczema with oral antibiotics, in pill or liquid form.
Antibiotics do not help the itching, redness, or severity of eczema. And the skin bacteria usually come back in a month or two.
You can control eczema better with moisturisers and the other steps below. To relieve itching and swelling, ask your doctor about creams or ointments containing a steroid (also called a corticosteroid) or other medicines.
Some doctors use antibiotic creams or ointments to prevent infection in surgical wounds. However, most surgical wounds have a very low risk of infection. Antibiotics don’t make the risk any lower. In fact, petroleum jelly (Vaseline and generic) is cheaper and less likely to irritate the wound.
Oral antibiotics for eczema can have side effects, including upset stomach, vomiting, diarrhoea, and vaginal yeast infections. They can also cause allergic reactions such as rashes, swelling, itching, and trouble breathing.
Antibiotic creams and ointments can actually slow down the healing of wounds. And they can cause redness, swelling, blistering, draining, and itching.
Using antibiotics when you don’t need them helps drug-resistant bacteria grow. These bacteria are harder to kill. They can cause illnesses that are harder to cure. This increases the risk of complications and side effects. The resistant bacteria can also be passed on to others.
Antibiotics should be prescribed for eczema when there are signs of a bacterial infection, such as:
Antibiotics should be prescribed for surgical wounds:
This report is for you to use when talking with your health professional.
It’s OK to ask questions
If you have questions about your symptoms or the medicines managing your symptoms, speak with your health professional.
You can also download this information as a pdf (465 KB).
© 2016 Consumers Union of United States, Inc, (101 Truman Ave, Yonkers, NY 10703-1057) Adapted from Consumer Reports (2016), Antibiotics for your skin. When you need them — and when you don’t, developed in co-operation with the American Academy of Dermatology. Choosing Wisely does not assume any responsibility or liability arising from any error or omission or from the use of any information in these resources.
This article is part of our content on Choosing Wisely, a campaign encouraging a change in thinking by health professionals and consumers to avoid unnecessary medical intervention.