Dynamic Duo: Antibiotics and Probiotics

Photograph of antibiotics.
Photograph of antibiotics, courtesy of sparktography via Creative Commons license.

When your cold or flu virus turns into a bacterial infection, taking antibiotics can seem like a miracle. You often start feeling better after just a day or two. Antibiotics work by killing bacteria or by stopping bacteria from multiplying. Antibiotics quickly make you feel better because the drug kills the majority of the targeted bacteria very quickly.

However antibiotics also kill beneficial bacteria and induce negative side effects — most commonly diarrhea, upset stomach, and vaginal yeast infection. For instance, antibiotics cause about one out of three people to get diarrhea by disrupting the balance of the intestinal flora, a collection of bacteria and other microorganisms in the digestive tract. This can result in an overgrowth of the Clostridium difficile bacteria that causes diarrhea. Similarly, antibiotics can disrupt the vaginal flora and cause an overgrowth of Candida yeasts to cause a yeast infection.

Probiotics are live bacteria, yeasts and other microbes intended to maintain or restore the supply of beneficial bacteria in the body, particularly the stomach and intestines. Probiotics are found naturally in certain foods, including yogurt, aged cheeses, kefir, miso, tempeh, and fermented cabbage. Dietary supplements are another common source of probiotics.

The use of probiotics to reduce antibiotic-induced side effects is now becoming more widely accepted by the medical profession. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association supports taking probiotics with antibiotics. A team of researchers from southern California combined and analyzed the results of 63 randomized controlled trials of probiotics for the prevention or treatment of antibiotic-associated diarrhea. The 11811 men and women included in this large combined study took a placebo or probiotics supplement along with their antibiotics. The people who took the probiotics were 42% less likely to develop diarrhea than those taking the placebo.

However, further research is needed to determine the most effective probiotics and dose. Of course it is also important to limit your use of antibiotics, using them only for bacterial infections when necessary.

For more information about using probiotics with antibiotics, check out my KQED Quest website.

Author: Jennifer Huber

As a Ph.D. physicist and research scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, I gained extensive experience in medical imaging and technical writing. Now, I am a full-time freelance science writer and science-writing instructor. I've lived in the San Francisco Bay Area most of my life and I frequently enjoy the eclectic cultural, culinary and outdoor activities available in the area.

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