Should You Be Taking Probiotics?

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It might never have crossed your mind to take probiotics, those friendly microorganisms that are supposed to maintain order in your gut. Or perhaps you're a loyal fan and regular consumer of probiotic-enriched yogurt.

Regardless of your current habits or preferences, the question is do you need to be taking probiotics?

You may want to consider taking probiotics if:

You're taking antibiotics.

If you've ever experienced diarrhea while taking a course of antibiotics, you've experienced an unpleasant side effect that affects 25% to 30% of people who receive antibiotics. However, it's a side effect that probiotics might just be able to prevent. Antibiotics can alter or eradicate much of the beneficial flora that populates your gastrointestinal tract, causing cramps and diarrhea. But research supports the benefits of taking probiotics to ward off the diarrhea when taking antibiotics, according to a 2012 study published in JAMA.

You suffer from eczema.

Atopic dermatitis, or eczema, is a condition known for making your skin red, scaly and itchy. Anyone can develop it, although children seem to be more prone to doing so. Doctors typically advise people with eczema to avoid irritants and skin products with harsh chemicals, but there's also some evidence to suggest that consuming probiotics might help, too.

You suffer from acute infectious diarrhea.

When a terrible stomach bug rampages through your household, it may be time to stock up on some probiotics. Studies show that certain types of probiotics—usually  Lactobacillus GC and  Saccharomyces biolardi—can decrease the severity of the situation. That is, you may experience fewer episodes of diarrhea while it runs its course. It might even shorten the overall amount of time you're affected by the diarrhea.

You have developed a vaginal infection.

Just as the intestines harbor healthy bacteria, the vagina does, too. Some studies suggest that L. acidophilus can help cases of bacterial vaginosis, an infection that develops when the normal balance of "good" bacteria and "bad" bacteria is disturbed. More research is needed to determine whether this probiotic can effectively prevent or treat vaginal yeast infections.

But there's always an exception to the rule. There are some people who may not benefit from consuming probiotics. For example, doctors do not recommend giving probiotics to premature infants. And often, experts suggest that certain people, including the elderly, consume their probiotics in foods, rather than taking a probiotic supplement.

Other reasons that you may want to avoid consuming probiotics:

You have underlying health issues.

While research suggests that probiotics are generally safe, experts caution that there's not a lot of long-term data on the safety of probiotics—and they suggest that you consider steering clear unless your healthcare provider gives you the green light. There are some minor risk factors for probiotic-associated infection, such as having a central venous catheter or a prosthesis, that might make your doctor want you to be more cautious.

You are immunocompromised or immunosuppressed in some way.

If you have human immunodeficiency virus or inflammatory bowel disease, if you're being treated for cancer, or perhaps you have undergone organ transplantation, you may want to consult your doctor before loading up on the probiotic-rich yogurt or trying a supplement. These conditions are more likely to put you at risk for probiotic-associated infections.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Jun 20

  1. Marcason W. Probiotics: Where Do We Stand? Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2013; 113(10): 1424.

  2. Hempel S, et al. Probiotics for the Prevention and Treatment of Antibiotic-Associated Diarrhea: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA. 2012; 307(18):1959-1969. http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1151505

  3. De Vrese M and Marteau PR. Probiotics and Prebiotics: Effects on Diarrhea. Journal of Nutrition. 2007; 137(3): 803S-811S. http://jn.nutrition.org/content/137/3/803S.full

  4. Lactobacillus acidophilus. University of Maryland Medical Center. http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/lactobacillus-acidophilus

  5. Sumberac T. Are Probiotics Effective In Preventing Clostridium Difficile Associated Diarrhea? The NYU Langone Online Journal of Medicine. May 30, 2014. http://www.clinicalcorrelations.org/?p=7779

  6. Probiotics: Beneficial or Harmful? Medscape. http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/830002

  7. Guandalini S. Probiotics for prevention and treatment of diarrhea. Journal of Clinical Gastroeneterology. 2011; 45(11): S149-53. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21992955

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