Why can’t you buy antibiotics over the counter?

Reviewed by:
Angela DiLaura, NP
Clinical Informatics and Quality Manager
Last updated on November 30, 2021

If you’ve ever taken antibiotics to clear up a routine ailment—maybe a UTI or severe acne—you may think it’s simple enough to get the same medication if the problem pops up again.

And it is simple—but it still requires a prescription and a visit with your doctor.

This can seem frustrating, but there are good reasons why antibiotics aren’t available over the counter.

Overuse can lead to antibiotic resistance

Antibiotic resistance happens when antibiotics are used too much and become less effective or completely ineffective. 

It’s a huge problem that the Centers for Disease Control calls, “one of the most urgent threats to the public’s health,” and that the World Health Organization says could lead to “a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries can once again kill.”

For that reason, it’s in the public’s best interest to not sell antibiotics over the counter, and prescribe them only when they’re needed.

You can’t take just any antibiotic

You’ll often hear people say, “I need antibiotics,” when they’re sick.

That’s like saying, “I need a pain-killer,” when something hurts. Depending on what hurts, the person could be talking about anything from ice, to an oral painkiller or anti-inflammatory, to a topical cream or ointment.

There are many types of antibiotics, each with specific uses. If you use the wrong one, there’s a risk that something could go wrong.

Taking the wrong antibiotic can lead to serious side effects

The best-case scenario for taking the wrong antibiotic is that nothing happens—that is, the antibiotic is completely ineffective and it does nothing to harm or treat you.

But you can also suffer from various side effects such as:

  • Rashes.

  • Diarrhea.

  • Yeast infections.

  • Severe allergic reactions.

  • In rare cases, death.

Some of the more serious side effects of antibiotic use include severe allergic reactions, antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections, and C. difficile infection, which causes severe diarrhea and can lead to hospitalization and death.

Only take antibiotics when prescribed by your doctor

If you’ve read this far, you know that an antibiotic is not something to be taken lightly. 

Fortunately, HealthTap can help, and we make it as easy as can be.

If you’re experiencing symptoms that you think may require a prescription, schedule an appointment with your HealthTap doctor. It’s a simple video call that you can do from anywhere with an internet connection.

Your doctor can provide medical advice, and write prescriptions and order tests when necessary. Once you’ve had your appointment, you can text with your doctor to ask follow-up questions, get updates on your condition, and get prescription refills.

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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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