Any time a character develops an illness of any variety whatsoever, the medical provider will immediately insist upon throwing all manner of high-powered antibiotics at the patient in order to treat the "infection." This is a colossal fail, as there are thousands of species and dozens of classes of infectious organisms - bacteria, viruses, protozoans, fungi, yeasts, helminths [worms], parasites not otherwise specified, and so on. Of those, only bacteria are susceptible to antibiotics, and then only if that particular bacterial strain is sensitive to the prescribed antibiotic. Bacterial populations also evolve rapidly with time and drug exposure, giving rise to resistant infections - in which a bug no-sells what should be an effective course of antibiotic therapy. Notable examples of these nasties include MRSA, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, and VRE, vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus.
There are antifungal, antiviral and antiparasitic drugs, but these are hardly ever mentioned in fiction (except in medical fiction where they're likely to be a plot point). See also Magic Antidote.
- Antiviral rather than antibiotic, but in Outbreak, Robbie contracts the Motaba virus and is on the brink of death before they administer the virus' antiserum. She is almost completely recovered after only a day. In reality, this is far too soon to recover from a hemorrhagic fever, which causes massive internal bleeding and organ failure.
- In the last section of The Stand, Stu Redman comes down with the flu. Tom Cullen, on the advice of his dead friend, finds some antibiotics and cures him. Antibiotics don't cure the flu (a viral infection), and the antibiotics would be several months out of date, as it's after The End of the World as We Know It.
- In Many Waters, when Dennys is fighting a fever brought on by a combination of heatstroke and being thrown into a garbage pit with torn-up skin, he thinks back to the last time he'd had the flu, when he "had antibiotics to fight the fever". This is made even worse by the fact that his parents are scientists who ought to have known that flu is caused by a virus and can't be treated with antibiotics.
- Played with on House: first prescribe the most widely useful antibiotics, then find out what they actually have before the patient's kidneys shut down because of the antibiotics.
- This trope also applies to cancer treatments. While in reality there are dozens of families of antineoplastic drugs, any of which is only effective and used on a handful of specific cancers, House's team is fond of using one-size-fits-all chemotherapy.
- House is one of those rare examples in fiction that acknowledges the existence of separate treatments for fungal and parasitic infections.
- Averted in a Jon Pertwee Doctor Who story which has a major subplot about a deadly plague being released by the story's antagonists. The Doctor and Liz Shaw eventually find a cure by literally going through every single available antibiotic drug to see if it works in lab conditions. In the meantime the best they can do is use high doses of broad-spectrum antibiotics which are just effective enough to delay the plague's symptoms, and a character notes that this policy is causing severe side effects.
- Averted in Combat Hospital. In the second episode, the antibiotics the hospital staff keep doling out have no effect on a local strain of bacteria.
- Played straight in a Sliders episode, where the protagonists end up in a world, where antibiotics were never discovered, and the nation is gripped by a deadly plague. Professor Arturo (a physicist!) manages to engineer a simple antibiotic from what he remembers in biology class, which is treated as a miracle cure.
- Sadly prevalent in real life medicine, as providers frequently don't want to wait to culture an organism before attempting to treat it. A major cause of the explosion in the rates and severity of multidrug-resistant bacterial infections. However, since a culture & sensitivity requires anywhere from one to five days to result and it looks kind of bad if your patient dies of his infection before the C&S report comes back, "empiric therapy" - prescribing a broad-spectrum antibiotic "cocktail" and narrowing it down when the C&S results - is common. This treatment is always prescribed in conjunction with a "pan culture" - culturing samples of the patient's blood, urine, stool, sputum, occasionally cerebrospinal fluid, and any wounds they might have, in order to pinpoint a source of infection. The classic example of this scenario is when someone is dragged into an ER unconscious, running a high fever and in apparent septic shock. They're dying, and you need to treat bacteremia immediately. What do you do? Bomb the infection with as broad-spectrum a cocktail as is reasonable, and hope the drugs kill the bugs before fatal damage results.
- Choosing antibiotic therapy for as-yet unidentified infections poses yet another wealth of traps for the physician. For example, vancomycin, commonly used as a one-stop bug bomb for skin and soft tissue infections, is deadly to practically all Gram-positive organisms but practically no Gram-negatives. The choice of antibiotics for pneumonia changes quite a bit depending on whether the patient has recently spent time in a hospital or nursing home. Gastrointestinal organisms behave very differently in skin and soft tissue versus their home tract. The general wisdom is to treat with the most effective and narrowest spectrum antibiotic you can; when you don't know the specific infection's resistance, you make an educated guess as to which antibiotics should cover the most common causative organisms. (Hospitals are savvy to this, and one of the jobs of the hospital's infection control department is to create and publish an "antibiogram" - a comprehensive chart of the most common bugs in the community and which drugs they're sensitive and resistant to.)
- It's worth pointing out that antibiotic resistance is complicated. It's not like all bacteria resist the same things. Penicillin is often useless against Staphylococcus aureus but great for Streptococcus pyogenes pharyngitis (a/k/a "strep throat")... but useless again for S. mitis. Tigecycline is rarely resisted but won't work against any Pseudomonas due to quirks of the bacteria's biology; cefepime is quite commonly resisted by many bacteria but works great against Pseudomonas. Giving clindamycin to a patient can actually increase the risk of Clostridium difficile infection. You treat C. difficile with metronidazole, and metronidazole is used for Candida vaginosis (yeast infection) as well... and may cause Mobiluncus vaginosis. And so on. Treatment isn't easy or obvious.
- Many people will demand antibiotics from doctors for common ailments like colds or influenza. Although those are viral and antibiotics are completely useless, doctors often give in.
- Dr. Drew Pinsky noted on an episode of Loveline that azithromycin (known best under the brand name Zithromax) is frequently given as a catch-all treatment, and estimated that it was the appropriate treatment for maybe 10% of those cases in which he's seen it prescribed.
- The 1918 influenza pandemic. At least in the US, doctors tended to jab untested or marginally tested "vaccines" into as many arms as they could manage in the hopes that this time, they had it right. (Given that medical science of the early 1900s assumed that influenza was a bacterial disease, any cures would have been accidental.)
- Related are anti-bacterial soaps or cleaning agents. They are claimed to wipe out infectious bacteria, but the only way to guarantee killing bacteria is to maintain 20 minutes of exposure. Washing your hands or 30 seconds only destroys bacteria with the weakest resistance, and later generations of bacteria will evolve with better resistance to them.
- Note: This doesn't apply to hand sanitizer. The active ingredient in most hand sanitizers is alcohol; your typical sanitizer is basically 80 proof vodka turned into a gel. Almost needless to say, we've been using alcohol to kill microbes for millennia (without realizing it for most of that time), and none of the critters has ever developed a resistance to that. The same goes for bleach, ammonia, peroxide, and acid (none of which you should get on your hands!).
- Also note that most soaps work on a much simpler concept: They make your hands slippery, making it easier to rub them under running water and thus shear the bacteria off your skin using mechanical force (which also, conveniently, is something many bacteria have yet to evolve resistance to). Statistically speaking, fifteen seconds of hand-rubbing under running water rubs enough bacteria off your skin that the survivors have a low chance of propagating in numbers enough to be infectious. So antibacterial soap does work... But not really much differently from regular soap.
- In some parts of the world, some doctors really do prescribe antibiotics for everything. Typically these are older doctors in developing countries, from a time when indiscriminate prescription of antibiotics was seen as harmless-resistant bacteria hadn't popped up yet. However, even though doctors their age in the rich world have stopped this practice, they haven't—largely because wealthy countries tend to impose fairly rigorous continuing medical education (CME) requirements to ensure that doctors keep up with the state of medicine, while poorer countries either don't have CME requirements or cannot enforce them. So the doctor keeps handing out antibiotics like it's candy, not realizing that this has been a terrible idea for at least the last 30 years.
- Sadly, this is far from a problem only in the developing world. Recent research in the UK, for example, showed that 48% of GPs had prescribed antibiotics to patients suffering from a common cold in the past year. Even in developed countries with socialised health care (where insurance companies and private payer demands are not important), antibiotic overuse is still a massive problem.
- Dr. Mario. Thankfully, he has the cure.
- In 7 Days to Die, curing a zombie infection doesn't even require antibiotics; you can just eat a jar of honey and be right as rain immediately, even if you're only one second away from keeling over dead...or undead, as the case may be.
- In Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead, zombies can cause bite wounds, which require quick treatment or they will become infected wounds that cause all sorts of nasty penalties and eventual death. Fortunately, a single dose of antibiotics is enough to cure all infected wounds you have.
- The Flame in the Flood lets you craft homemade antibiotics simply by roasting any two pieces of rotten food over a campfire. In some cases, it's preferable to deliberately let a wound get infected, since most food rots naturally over time, meaning you are almost guaranteed to have antibiotics or the ability to craft some compared to some more specific cures other injuries need.
- There is a legend about some grave robbers during The Black Death. Despite robbing, you know, plague victims, they never got sick. When they were finally caught, they were asked to reveal their secret. It turns out that one of the grave robbers was a doctor or herbalist, and had fixed up some type of protection using herbs and spices that were later found to have antibiotic properties. (They didn't know that, but they did know that using these plant parts tended to result in less sickness.) It isn't known whether or not this was an actual event (hence its placement here), but the story did inspire (and/or has been used to promote) an essential oil blend called "Thieves."