Can you buy antibiotics over the counter?

Reviewed by:
Dr. Robert Kwok
Director of Health Informatics
Last updated on November 18, 2021

If you are sick, you might be wondering if a simple antibiotic can or will cure what ails you. And that may have you wondering if you can pick one up at your local drug store? If so, which one should you take? Do you need a prescription from a doctor to get antibiotics? What do you do if you need an antibiotic?

So many questions. We get it. HealthTap has answers and your HealthTap doctor can help.

“Antibiotics” are not one singular thing. Rather, they are a category of bacteria-fighting drugs or drugs that slow bacteria growth that should only be used in specific circumstances. 

And because misuse of antibiotics can result in ineffective treatment, side effects, antibiotic-resistant infections, or even death, antibiotics are tightly controlled in the United States. While it may seem frustrating, it is to protect us. 

Antibiotic resistance happens when germs like bacteria and fungi develop the ability to defeat the drugs designed to kill them. That means drugs that would normally work against germs do not kill them and, therefore, they continue to grow and cause disease. More than 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections occur in the U.S. each year. Antibiotic resistance is not a joke! In fact, it’s very common around the world, affecting millions of people each year, causing hospitalization and even death. 

So not only is it important to only take antibiotics when medically necessary, it’s also important to take the correct dosage of your medication for the correct amount of time needed to completely kill the germs that are causing your infection. Only certified medical professionals are qualified to diagnose and treat infections requiring antibiotics. 

Common names you may recognize

Some common infections where antibiotics may be necessary include: urinary tract infections (UTIs), tooth infections, pneumonia, meningitis, acne, skin infections, and strep throat.

You may recognize some of the most common groups of antibiotics: 

  • Penicillins treat a wide range of infections and unless you are allergic, you have probably received a prescription in your lifetime. There are many different penicillins prescribed for a range of conditions, the most common being amoxicillin, which will treat everything from strep throat to urinary tract infections. 

  • Tetracyclines are often prescribed for common skin conditions like acne.  The most common tetracyclines are tetracycline and doxycycline 

  • Cephalosporins treat a wide variety of infections such as pneumonia, meningitis, and ear infections. Cephalosporins are not usually used as a first-choice antibiotic. They tend to be reserved for use when other antibiotics (often penicillins) cannot be used.

  • Macrolides are another antibiotic used as an alternative to penicillin if allergic reactions occur. They can treat things like pneumonia, STDs, and other infections. 

  • Fluoroquinolones are sometimes used to treat a variety of skin, sinus, joint, and urinary infections. However, this class of antibiotic has limited approval from the FDA due to severe side effects such as nerve damage, heart damage and mental health issues. For this reason, its use has been approved for serious infections or for patients who have no other choice of treatment. This might include patients with allergies to other antibiotics or infections caused by hard-to-treat, resistant bacteria.

  • Sulfonamides, the most common being trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole (Bactrim, Septra), stop or slow the growth of bacteria and are often used for UTIs and skin infections.

Read on to learn more about what you can get over the counter and what requires a prescription.

You can get some topical antibiotics over the counter

Bacitracin and polymyxin — which you may recognize under the brand names Neosporin and Polysporin, respectively — are antibiotic ointments that you can buy without a prescription. Some others you may recognize/use: Neomycin (Neosporin Plus Pain Relief) and Benzoyl peroxide (Proactiv)

They are applied topically — on your skin — and are used to prevent bacterial infections from deep cuts (you don’t need to apply Neosporin to every cut). 

Oral antibiotics require a prescription

Oral antibiotics — the kind used to treat UTIs, chlamydia, and other bacterial infections — require a prescription by a doctor. We go into all the details on our blog about oral antibiotics. 

Why? 

few reasons:

  • Not all infections need to be treated with antibiotics. And overuse can lead to antibiotic resistance which we covered above.

  • Some infections require testing.

  • Different antibiotics treat different infections.

  • Using the wrong antibiotic or using an antibiotic incorrectly can lead to serious side effects — including death.

HealthTap doctors can prescribe antibiotics if needed

If you have a medical condition that requires antibiotics, we can help! 

Your HealthTap doctor is there for all your healthcare needs. HealthTap members get the benefit of choosing and keeping the doctor they connect with best. Make sure you have chosen your doctor and had an introductory visit to get to know them. We believe in the importance of having a relationship with your doctor, one that knows you, your health history, any medication you may be taking, what you are allergic to, any conditions you may have, etc. Having a doctor that is one tap away to get any needed medications makes life much easier and makes getting well a much quicker process.

Your HealthTap doctor can conduct a virtual visit, order tests, and, if necessary, prescribe you antibiotics — all without you having to leave the comfort of your home.*

If you’re a subscriber, HealthTap will even show you a map with the best prices on your prescription at the pharmacies nearest to you. 

If you have questions after your appointment, HealthTap makes it easy to simply text your doctor with questions, like:

  • “Can I take my daily vitamins with my antibiotic?”
  • “My antibiotic is making me feel dizzy, is this normal?
  • “How much do I have to eat before taking my medication?”
  • “Can I drink alcohol while taking my antibiotic?”

Your doctor is there to answer all your questions, not just about antibiotics. 

What to do if you are not feeling well or want to speak to a doctor.

  1. Make sure you have set up a HealthTap account.

  2. Once your account has been set up, subscribe to become a HealthTap member, which allows you to take full advantage of all that HealthTap has to offer.

  3. Choose your doctor.

  4. Schedule an appointment with your doctor. Note: You don’t have to be sick to meet with your doctor. We encourage you to meet with your doctor to get to know each other. It allows your sick appointments to be quicker and easier.

  5. Start an Urgent Care appointment now or schedule an appointment with your Primary Care doctor.

  6. Talk with your doctor about your symptoms, questions, or concerns.

  7. Determine with your doctor if you need medication to get better.

  8. Take full advantage of your HealthTap membership. 

Whether you need an antibiotic or not, your HealthTap doctor is here for you and here to stay on your healthy journey with you.

*Some tests may require you to make an in-person visit to one of our partner labs.

Get high-quality, affordable telehealth & doctor appointments from HealthTap, 24/7 on demand


HealthTap Editors

HealthTap Editors

HealthTap articles are reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. Visit https://www.healthtap.com/about-doctors/ to learn more and meet some of the medical editorial board members behind our blog. The information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. HealthTap is a virtual-first, affordable urgent- and primary-care clinic, providing top-quality physician care nationwide to Americans with or without insurance. Our proprietary, easy-to-use, and innovative apps and electronic medical record apply Silicon Valley standards to effectively engage consumers and doctors online to increase the equity, accessibility, and efficiency of ongoing medical care for consumers, providers, employers, and payers. In addition, with HealthTap, businesses can offer virtual primary care to employees for less than the cost of free coffee. HealthTap's US-based board-certified physicians are available throughout North America. For more information, visit www.healthtap.com.
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