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 even after only 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 those 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.
For surgical prophylaxis, the cephalosporin antibiotics are usually preferred. This class includes cefazolin (Ancef, Kefzol), cefamandole (Mandol), cefotaxime (Claforan), and others. The choice of drug depends on its spectrum and the type of bacteria that are most likely to be encountered. For example, surgery on the intestines, which have many anaerobic bacteria, might call for cefoxitin (Mefoxin), while in heart surgery, where there are no anaerobes, cefazolin might be preferred.
The recommended dosage depends on the type of antibiotic prescribed and the reason it is being used. For the correct dosage, the patient is advised to check with the physician or dentist who prescribed the medicine or the pharmacist who filled the prescription. The patient is recommended to be sure to take the medicine exactly as prescribed, and not to take more or less than directed, and to take the medicine only for as long as the physician or dentist says to take it.
The recommended dose of prophylactic antibiotic for surgery has varied with studies. At one time, it was common to give a dose of antibiotic when the patient was called to the operating room, and to continue the drug for 48 hours after surgery. More recent studies indicate that a single antibiotic dose, given immediately before the start of surgery, may be just as effective in preventing infection, while reducing the risk of drug side effects.
The warnings listed below refer primarily to the effects of the drugs when taken in multiple doses. When prophylactic antibiotics are used as a single dose, adverse effects are very unlikely. The only exceptions are for people who are allergic to the antibiotic used. Since cephalosporins are closely related to penicillins, people who are allergic to penicillins should avoid cephalosporin antibiotics.
If the medicine causes nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea, the patient is advised to 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, the patient is advised to see the entry on the type of drug prescribed such as penicillins or fluoroquinolones.
Antibiotics may cause a number of side effects. For details, the patient is advised to see entries on specific types of antibiotics. Anyone who has unusual or disturbing symptoms after taking antibiotics should get in contact with the prescribing 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, the candidate is advised to see entries on specific types of antibiotics.
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Nancy Ross-Flanigan Sam Uretsky, PharmD