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Antibiotics are medicinal products that have an anti-bacterial effect — they either kill bacteria in the system or keep them from reproducing, allowing the infected body to heal by producing its own defenses and overcome the infection. When these substances were isolated in the mid-twentieth century, they were widely hailed as 'wonder drugs' and indeed, formerly life-threatening infections could now be easily cured within a few days.

The most widely known antibiotic is perhaps penicillin, famously made from mold. When it was introduced, many of the sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea went from being a shameful and life changing event to an embarrassing trip to the doctors.

One of the most prevalent and unstoppable myths about these medications is that they can cure a cold. They work against bacterial infections, and colds are caused by viruses — therefore, they will do nothing but perhaps kill off the body's own population of beneficial bacteria, leaving the cold to run its natural course. Nevertheless, patients often pressure their doctors into prescribing antibiotics when they come down with a cold or the flu.

One side effect of taking these medications for an infection is that it can leave the body defenseless against other non-bacterial types of infections, and for many women, this means a yeast infection, which is fungal. The fungus responsible for yeast infections is always present, and is kept from spreading by helpful bacteria in the digestive tract, which the antibiotics kill, or at least curtail, leaving the fungus to spread. Over-the-counter yeast infection products will usually work to alleviate a yeast infection.

Widespread use of antibiotics for non-medicinal purposes, such as in cattle feed and in antibacterial hand soaps, is causing concern in the medical and pharmaceutical industries, since it is responsible for the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Washing your hands with an antibacterial soap may make you feel cleaner, but any bacteria that survives the scrub is part of the bacterial population that is immune to that particular substance, and thus all its descendants will be too. This has led to an "arms race" between bacteria and the drug manufacturers, with some medications being held back or only minimally prescribed to prevent bacteria in the "wild" from adapting to them.

Antibiotics may seem like a recent innovation of the past hundred years, but indeed, many ancient civilizations had some understanding of the principle of them, and many herbs have anti-bacterial effects. One of the most widely known is common garlic. It is so effective at countering bacteria that over-consumption of garlic can have the same effect as antibiotics at leaving the body prey to non-bacterial infections by reducing the body's "good bacteria" population.

What are the Different Types of Antibiotics?

There are over 100 antibiotics prescribed in modern medicine, but the majority are derived from seven main classes that are widely used today. They include penicillins, cephalosporins, macroclides, fluoroquinolones, sulfonamides, tetracyclines and aminoglycosides.

Amoxicillin and penicillin fall into the penicillin class of antibiotics. These types of antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections such as gonorrhea and pneumonia. Sometimes, amoxicillin is prescribed along with clarithromycin to treat stomach ulcers. Some minor side effects include nausea and vomiting, thrush and swollen or black tongue. Penicillins can decrease the effectiveness of birth control pills, so patients should let their healthcare provider know if they are using birth control.

Macrolides such as erythromycin, clarithromycin and azithromycin are used to treat skin and respiratory infections, stomach ulcers and sexually transmitted diseases. Side effects associated with these antibiotics include nausea and vomiting, mild stomach pain and vaginal itching or discharge. People with liver or kidney problems should consult with a medical professional before taking these antibiotics.

Cephalosporins like cephalexin are used to treat upper respiratory and urinary tract infections. Minor side effects include nausea, dizziness and joint pain. Those with liver or kidney disease, diabetes or a stomach/intestinal disorder should seek medical advice before taking cephalexin.

Ciprofloxacin, levofloxacin and ofloxacin are fluoroquinolones. Levofloxacin is a popular antibiotic used to treat bronchitis or people exposed to anthrax. Ofloxacin is used to treat chlamydia, pneumonia and urinary tract infections, while ciprofloxacin is used to treat various bacterial infections. Minor side effects that could occur with the use of these types of antibiotics are nausea/vomiting, headache, blurred vision and dizziness.

Co-trimoxazole and trimethoprim are sulfonamides. Urinary tract infections and traveler's diarrhea is treated with co-trimoxazole. Trimethoprim is used to treat bladder infections. Minor side effects when taken include nausea/vomiting, insomnia and ringing in the ears.

Tetracycline and doxycycline are tetracyclines. Acne, gonorrhea and chlamydia are treated with tetracycline. Minor side effects associated with its use are rectal or genital swelling or soreness, difficulty swallowing or mild upset stomach.

Gentamicin and tobramycin are aminoglycosides used to treat various bacterial infections. Tobramycin is commonly used to treat lung infections in patients with cystic fibrosis. Minor side effects associated with the use of gentamicin include increased thirst and loss of appetite. Users of tobramycin may notice a change in their voice or an unpleasant odor or taste of the medication.

Patients with allergies or pre-existing medical conditions for which they are taking another medication should inform the medical professional caring for them so that the antibiotic dosage can be adjusted accordingly. Antibiotics should be taken for as long as instructed and should never be shared, because what works well for one person may cause an adverse reaction in another. Taken correctly, antibiotics can be very effective.