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Over The Counter Antibiotics – A Closer Look At Their Uses

- Written By

DR Munazza Ashraf, Pharmacist

Updated on

This article is based on scientific evidence, written by experts and fact checked by experts. Our team of experts strive to be objective, unbiased, honest and to present both sides of the argument. This article contains scientific references. Read more about our process.

over the counter antibiotics

In the modern, fast-paced environment the majority of people tend to opt for quick and readily available solutions. Hence, the use of over the counter antibiotics is becoming increasingly popular because of their accessibility and convenience. Though OTC antibiotics help prevent or treat certain ailments, they have higher risks attached to their inappropriate use.

Can I use over the counter antibiotics for infection?

Yes, you can get over the counter antibiotics but they are only a few. In general, most antibiotics require a prescription. The reason is antibiotics are powerful medicines and their improper dosing may result in severe consequences. Through this article, we’ll look into how the use of over the counter antibiotics is going to affect public health in the long term. 

What are antibiotics used for?

Antibiotics or antibacterial are used to treat bacterial infections such as strep throat, whooping cough, ear infections, UTIs, STIs, etc. However, mild bacterial infections don’t require treatment with antibiotics as they can resolve on their own.

Antibiotics work in two ways. They either slow down the proliferation of bacteria (bacteriostatic action) or cause death (bactericidal action). The basic principle is to disrupt the essential processes of bacterial cells reducing their ability to cause infection.

Most importantly, antibiotics should never be used for common colds and flu as they aren’t effective against viral infections. Using over the counter antibiotics for infections which they aren’t required for may develop unwanted medical conditions which I’ll discuss ahead.

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Can i get antibiotics over the counter?

I observed the rising concern among the masses regarding the availability of over the counter antibiotics. Because many believe that antibiotics are magic pills having powers to combat whatever infection or ailment they have. 

Under federal laws, only some topical over the counter antibiotics are accessible in the pharmacies or grocery stores to the general public. However, it is not approved to provide any oral, intravenous, or intramuscular antibiotic without a prescription from a certified practitioner. There may be some exceptions based on which country or region you are from but generally, it’s illegal to obtain any antibiotic over the counter other than topical ones. 

Which antibiotics are available over the counter?

Topical antibiotics which are used to treat minor cuts and burns, wounds, scrapes, and acne are available over the counter. They are only for external use, applied locally to help relieve the condition. 

Some over the counter antibiotics available for topical use include:

  • Bacitracin (Neosporin)
  • Benzoyl peroxide (Proactive)
  • Polymyxin (Polyprion)
  • Neomycin (Neosporin Plus)

Do i need a prescription for antibiotics? 

Based on the spectrum of activity, we divide antibiotics into two categories:

  • Narrow-spectrum antibiotics
  • Broad-spectrum antibiotics

Narrow-spectrum antibiotics target only specific groups or strains of bacteria whereas broad-spectrum antibiotics are effective against a wider range. 

Since narrow-spectrum antibiotics are active against selective strains, they possess improved safety profiles than broad-spectrum antibiotics. The latter, due to their lack of selectivity, can lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Therefore, to avoid the complications of using over the counter antibiotics it’s recommended to consult a healthcare professional. They are trained in performing physical examinations, running diagnostic tests, and prescribing the right medication and dosage.

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Difference between prescriptions and over the counter antibiotics

Prescription antibiotics strictly require authorization from a medical expert. They are meant to treat more complicated infections while over the counter antibiotics can address less severe infections. Individuals can obtain OTC antibiotic pills for bacterial infections. However, they should remember self-diagnosis is never a substitute for professional medical advice.


If your symptoms get worse, you must immediately get help from your healthcare provider.

What are the commonly prescribed antibiotics?

Each antibiotic is formulated to effectively deal with the infection caused by a specific type of bacteria. However, some antibiotics are more commonly used to treat certain conditions which are mentioned below: 

Drug (Generic Name) IndicationsSide Effects Contraindications 
Amoxicillin Infection of ears, nose, throat, lower respiratory tract, urinary tract, and pneumonia More common: Nausea, diarrhea, skin rash Less common: Allergic reactions, vaginal yeast infection, abdominal painMethotrexate Warfarin Allopurinol Probenecid 
Azithromycin Infection of the upper respiratory tract, pneumonia, bronchitis, and STDsMore common: Upset stomach, diarrhea, headache Less common: Dizziness, liver problems, irregular heartbeat Nelfinavir Antacids Ergotamine Digoxin 
Ceftriaxone Meningitis, typhoid, septicemia, and gonorrhea More common: Redness at the site of injection, hypersensitivity reactions, diarrhea Less common: Gallbladder problems, low platelet count, kidney problems Heparin Warfarin Araroba
Cephalexin Otitis media, genitourinary tract infection, UTIs, skin infection, and bone infection More common: Diarrhea, nausea, skin rash Less common: Dizziness, lover problems, vaginal yeast infection Metformin Warfarin Zinc
Clindamycin Rarely used to treat UTIs, topical Clindamycin for acne More common: Diarrhea, nausea, skin rash Less common: Metallic taste in the mouth, clostridium difficile infection Cimetidine Amiodarone Itraconazole
LevofloxacinPneumonia, plague, chronic prostate infection, and kidney infection More common: Nausea, diarrhea, headache Less common: CNS effects, photosensitivityInsulin Prednisone NSAIDs
Metronidazole Rosacea, dental abscess, gum disease, bacterial vaginosis, and trichomoniasis More common: Nausea, diarrhea, metallic taste in the mouth Less common: Dry mouth, peripheral neuropathy, darkening of urine Phenytoin Phenobarbital Disulfiram 

Lets watch the video and listen what Wayne Mathews says about over the counter antibiotics for sore throat

Source / UNMCEDU

Why do i need a prescription for oral antibiotics?

Oral antibiotics should never be taken without consultation from a healthcare professional for various reasons:

1) Correct diagnosis

Only a certified physician is capable of identifying the type of infection his/her patient is suffering from. Even if you think the symptoms are similar to the last time you had an infection, I’d recommend you visit your healthcare provider rather than purchasing over the counter antibiotics from your previous prescription. 

2) Appropriate drug selection

Different factors influence the selection of the most effective antibiotic for an individual. A healthcare professional considers your age, gender, medical history, lifestyle and habits, and concurrent medications before prescribing. Similarly, some infections can only be addressed with a combination of antibiotics so we need critical evaluation to ensure optimal outcomes with the prescribed antibiotics. 

3) Right dosing

One must strictly adhere to their dosage regimen and antibiotic course. If you feel that your symptoms have improved, you are still required to complete the course otherwise the chances of relapse will be higher.

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Unintended consequences of misusing over the counter antibiotics 

From treatment failure to worsening of symptoms, and even the potential for severe illness, the misuse of over the counter antibiotics can have detrimental effects on individual health and wellbeing. 

1) Antibiotic-resistant bacteria

Pathogenic bacteria may develop resistance against antibiotics for multiple reasons. Either the person is overusing the prescribed antibiotics or taking them when they aren’t necessary. As a result, some adaptations occur in bacterial cells making them withstand the effects of antibiotics.

Ultimately, the antibiotics become ineffective to treat those types of bacteria and we either need to increase the dose or prescribe combination antibiotics. Once the bacteria learns to survive it will become harder to treat infections in the future.

2) Negative patient response

You might observe that a healthcare practitioner asks questions to know if you are allergic to any specific drug. Medical professionals are aware of the possible side effects while writing a prescription. During the course, if a patient shows a negative reaction to a certain antibiotic then their treatment plan is immediately changed.

However, if you opt for over the counter antibiotics for treating infections without medical supervision you may experience adverse effects because of wrong choices. 

3) Drug-disease interaction

Since I’m discussing the impact of over the counter antibiotics, it’s crucial to highlight the role of us pharmacists in correct dispensing. We are responsible to verify the accuracy of medication and its dosage before dispensing. 

Besides patient counseling, we communicate to learn if you are taking any medication for another medical condition that may contraindicate with your current prescription. 

The bottom line

Since over the counter antibiotics seem both a time and cost-effective way to overcome mild infections, people consume them overlooking the consequences. Even more, they do recommend them to their friends and family assuming that if a particular medication successfully treats their illness, it will prove effective for others as well.

Unfortunately, this widespread misconception perpetuates the improper use of over the counter antibiotic pills for infections. It’s not only affecting individuals but posing a global threat to public health.

WHO has declared antimicrobial resistance (AMR) among the top global threats, emphasizing the urgent need to address misuse and overuse of over the counter antibiotics

How we reviewed this article

Trend Of Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references. You can learn more about how we ensure our content is accurate and current by reading our editorial policy



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