Antibiotics can be life-savers and reduce illness and suffering, but they are no without risk. For a start, the widespread (and sometimes indiscriminate) use of antibiotics over the last few decades has contributed to the emergence of anti-biotic resistant bacteria that themselves can prove fatal. Antibiotic-related allergy is another issue with potentially fatal consequences. Another risk associated with antibiotics is that of them cutting a swathe through the ‘healthy’ bacteria in the gut.
In the short term this may lead to gut symptoms such as diarrhoea, but there is the possibility of long-term problems too. Antibiotic therapy (particularly repeated courses) has the theoretical capacity to upset the ‘ecosystem’ in the gut, that can lead to an organism imbalance there. In natural medicine, antibiotic therapy is believed to lead to a relative abundance of yeast species (e.g. candida) which have the capacity to provoke symptoms such as bloating, wind and altered bowel habit. Antibiotics can be, it seems, a trigger factor for what is often described as irritable bowel syndrome.
For these reasons, I generally advise individuals who take antibiotics to take a course of probiotics (healthy gut bacteria) during and/or after the course. I know of no research that has assessed this approach in the long term health and function of the gut, but there have been a few studies which have assessed the impact of probiotic therapy. Relevant science in this area was recently reviewed in a study published in the journal American Family Physician. Seven good quality studies were identified, and the results support the use of probiotics for the prevention of antibiotic-related diarrhoea. The probiotics also had a good safety profile in both adults and children.
Some of us will be entering the time of year where chest infections become more common and more antibiotics may be prescribed and taken as a result. Taking a probiotic may be a good insurance against short-terms problems and longer-term issues too.
Kligler B, et al. Probiotics. Am Fam Physician. 2008;8(9):1073-1078.