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Are There Any over-The-Counter Antibiotics?

By Gregory Hanson
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Although topical products with antibiotic properties can be purchased without a prescription, no over-the-counter antibiotics for internal use are allowed in the United States. Other countries follow different practices and allow some antibiotics to be purchased without a prescription, but the strongest drugs are generally never available over-the counter. The primary reason for restrictions on over-the-counter antibiotics is the prevention of antibiotic overuse and misuse, to limit unnecessary side effects, and to slow the emergence of antibiotic resistance in bacteria.

Antibiotics are only useful in treating bacterial infections, such as strep throat or tuberculosis. They are of no use in dealing with viral infections, such as colds and influenza. Consumers, however, do not always understand the difference between viruses and bacteria, and will often seek to purchase and use antibiotics when they are suffering from viral infections.

All of these drugs work by attacking and killing or weakening bacteria, but this process is never perfect, and not all bacteria exposed to an antibiotic will die. Usually, the immune system of a patient being treated with an antibiotic will be able to finish the job, and no bacteria with resistance to the antibiotic being used will survive.

Each time an antibiotic is used, however, there is some chance that bacteria with resistance to that drug will survive. These bacteria can then pass on their immunity to their offspring, and eventually, the entire bacterial population will be either resistant or immune to antibiotics that were once effective against it. Over-the-counter antibiotics are restricted in the United States in order to minimize the rate at which bacteria can develop antibiotic resistance.

Serious side effects can also occur with antibiotic use. Since antibiotics are, in essence, toxins, they do damage directly to the human body while they are fighting bacterial infection. Antibiotics are formulated so that they will do enough damage to bacteria to remove an infection but will not generally permanently harm a human, but there are still risks associated with antibiotic use. For example, a normal human body contains populations of symbiotic microbes, most notably in the digestive tract, and antibiotics can kill these, causing intestinal distress.

Topical antibiotics are an exception to the general ban on over-the-counter antibiotics in the United States. Since they act mostly outside of the body, these antibiotics can be much stronger than those taken internally, and side effects are less of an issue. These topical over-the-counter antibiotics should never be taken internally.

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Discussion Comments
By anon992091 — On Aug 12, 2015

I agree with oversight to prevent overuse and resistance, but I also object to doctors taking it to the extreme and the rampant unregulated use of antibiotics for livestock and in fisheries.

By anon958502 — On Jun 27, 2014

When I visit Canada, I stock-up.

By anon356730 — On Nov 28, 2013

Why are antibiotics not sold over the counter?

By anon342967 — On Jul 25, 2013

Actually, self medication has been around for centuries. The primary reason (and I'm not discounting some people would misuse antibiotics) is that without a doctor in the loop, there would be a huge loss in revenue to the medical system, and I mean billions over a five-year period.

Misuse is what we Americans do with everything we touch. However, a person who is responsible and say, gets a UTI and has had one previously in their life and understands what they may have, knows what antibiotic to take. They've had a prescription for it before. Same for sinus and bronchial infections. A simple 5 to 10 day dose of antibiotic is not an issue. If it doesn't fix the problem, a smart person takes the prescription to the doctor and explains what's gone on and then gets checked out and gets a different antibiotic. It's simple. It's money, money, money.

By anon331421 — On Apr 22, 2013

Can someone point me to the actual legislation banning the over the counter sale of antibiotics in the U.S?

By anon289824 — On Sep 06, 2012

And yet factory farms feed unnecessary antibiotics to cattle by the pound, completely wiping out any good done by all this caution. So while I can't get antibiotics for my obviously abscessed tooth, and sit here waiting for it to spread to my brain or heart and kill me, the beef industry creates all the super bacteria it wants as a side effect without any consequences whatsoever.

By anon286750 — On Aug 22, 2012

What also needs to be mentioned is the use of antibiotics in agriculture. If you're raising hogs, you can get some of this stuff without a prescription, just to help them grow faster. And it's cheaper; the profits come from human prescriptions! Go figure. See the recent New York Times article to see how this is working out.

By anon201438 — On Jul 30, 2011

That is all paranoia. Use antibiotics and let nature take its course. Only idiots would overdose themselves and die, but then there would be one less idiot so who cares? Let the government rob and kill you because you don't have the guts to live free from them anyway.

By fify — On Apr 20, 2011

I heard that in countries where over-the-counter antibiotics are available, it is used by pharmacists and drug companies as a profit tool.

Even when patients go to the doctor who doesn't prescribe antibiotics, they can go to the pharmacy and the pharmacist can suggest an antibiotic to get better faster. But they don't need antibiotics so they are not only wasting drugs and money but creating resistance in bacteria.

By serenesurface — On Apr 18, 2011

Since I was young, it has always taken me a really long time to get better from colds and flu. I can cough for months if I don't get treated with antibiotics.

When I was in college, I remember I caught a really bad cold during finals. It continued for more than a month and I visited the doctor three times and was sent home every time. They just told me to take over-the-counter cold medicines and pain relievers.

During my final visit to the doctor, I literally begged her to give me antibiotics so I could at least get out of bed and study. She finally agreed and I was better in that week.

Isn't this a bit too extreme? Should doctors be so concerned about prescribing antibiotics? It's fine for it not to be available over-the-counter. But it's hard to get antibiotics even from the doctor.

By burcinc — On Apr 17, 2011

I understand that we don't want antibiotic resistant bacteria. I have also been told by doctors many times that antibiotics do nothing for viral infections. But can't viral infections cause other problems that might require antibiotics at some point?

I still agree with the attitude of American doctors to antibiotics though. If antibiotics were available over the counter, people would use it every time they caught a cold. Before we know it, there would be breakouts of simple bacterial infections that we can't treat. It would be a disaster.

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