A prophylaxis is a measure taken to maintain health and prevent the spread of disease. Antibiotic prophylaxis is the focus of this article and refers to the use of antibiotics to prevent infections.
Antibiotics are well known for their ability to treat infections. But some antibiotics also are prescribed to prevent infections. This usually is done only in certain situations or for people with particular medical problems. For example, people with abnormal heart valves have a high risk of developing heart valve infections after even minor surgery. This happens because bacteria from other parts of the body get into the bloodstream during surgery and travel to the heart valves. To prevent these infections, people with heart valve problems often take antibiotics before having any kind of surgery, including dental surgery.
Antibiotics also may be prescribed to prevent infections in people with weakened immune systems, such as people with AIDS or people who are having chemotherapy treatments for cancer. But even healthy people with strong immune systems may occasionally be given preventive antibiotics-if they are having certain kinds of surgery that carry a high risk of infection, or if they are traveling to parts of the world where they are likely to get an infection that causes diarrhea, for example.
In all of these situations, a physician should be the one to decide whether antibiotics are necessary. Unless a physician says to do so, it is not a good idea to take antibiotics to prevent ordinary infections.
Because the overuse of antibiotics can lead to resistance, drugs taken to prevent infection should be used only for a short time.
Among the drugs used for antibiotic prophylaxis are amoxicillin (a type of penicillin) and fluoroquinolones such as ciprofloxacin (Cipro) and trovafloxacin (Trovan). These drugs are available only with a physician's prescription and come in tablet, capsule, liquid, and injectable forms.
The recommended dosage depends on the type of antibiotic prescribed and the reason it is being used. For the correct dosage, check with the physician or dentist who prescribed the medicine or the pharmacist who filled the prescription. Be sure to take the medicine exactly as prescribed. Do not take more or less than directed, and take the medicine only for as long as the physician or dentist says to take it.
If the medicine causes nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea, check with the physician or dentist who prescribed it as soon as possible. Patients who are taking antibiotics before surgery should not wait until the day of the surgery to report problems with the medicine. The physician or dentist needs to know right away if problems occur.
For other specific precautions, see the entry on the type of drug prescribed such as penicillins or fluoroquinolones.
Antibiotics may cause a number of side effects. For details, see entries on specific types of antibiotics. Anyone who has unusual or disturbing symptoms after taking antibiotics should get in touch with his or her physician.
Whether used to treat or to prevent infection, antibiotics may interact with other medicines. When this happens, the effects of one or both of the drugs may change or the risk of side effects may be greater. Anyone who takes antibiotics for any reason should inform the physician about all the other medicines he or she is taking and should ask whether any possible interactions may interfere with drugs' effects. For details of drug interactions, see entries on specific types of antibiotics.
AIDS— Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. A disease caused by infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). In people with this disease, the immune system breaks down, opening the door to other infections and some types of cancer.
Antibiotic— A medicine used to treat infections.
Chemotherapy— Treatment of an illness with chemical agents. The term is usually used to describe the treatment of cancer with drugs.
Immune system— The body's natural defenses against disease and infection.
pro·phy·lax·is / ˌprōfəˈlaksəs/ • n. action taken to prevent disease, esp. by specified means or against a specified disease: the treatment and prophylaxis of angina pectoris.