What Are Prophylactic Antibiotics?

Prescription antibiotics.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 29 July 2014
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Prophylactic antibiotics are antibiotic medications provided to a patient with the goal of preventing an infection. Antibiotic prophylaxis is usually used in connection with a medical procedure where there is a risk of infection, either because of the nature of the procedure or as a result of an underlying medical condition. Guidelines for the use of prophylactic antibiotics are used by doctors to determine when patients should receive medications, and it is important for patients to follow prescription directions precisely to protect themselves.

Certain surgeries carry a higher risk of infection as a result of their invasive or traumatic nature. These patients may be told to start antibiotics before surgery, and will continue after surgery through a course of treatment. The antibiotics need to be finished, as it is important to avoid contributing to antibiotic resistance by exposing bacteria to a partial dosage. If patients experience allergic reactions or severe side effects, a different medication can be tried.

Some patients are at risk of a condition called infective endocarditis, where bacteria colonize one of the valves of the heart. This includes patients with artificial heart valves, a history of this issue, or certain heart conditions. These patients may be advised to take prophylactic antibiotics before all surgical procedures, including dental care. Patients with compromised immune systems may also be a cause for concern, as their bodies will be less able to fight off infectious organisms.


A variety of drugs can be used, depending on the preference of the doctor. Patients preparing for surgery should note any history of allergic reactions so their doctors can take this into account when determining which antibiotics to prescribe. It is also advisable to provide surgeons with a complete medical history for the purpose of determining whether prophylactic antibiotic treatment is advisable or necessary in a given case.

There are some risks to prophylactic antibiotics, and these must be weighed when prescribing for a patient. The risk of allergic reactions is a concern, as is the development of antibiotic resistance. Doctors want to make sure drugs will be available when they are needed, and if a patient has resistant bacteria or allergies, it can be harder to find a good medication to treat an actual infection. Doctors are usually advised to prescribe prophylactic antibiotics for a patient only when there is a compelling need to do so, such as evidence of a patient's high risk of infection.


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