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Yes or No? When Are Antibiotics the Right Answer?

December 7, 2017
Published in: General

Female provider talking with a patient

Whether it's a persistent cough, a stuffy nose, or a fever – the expectation when seeing a doctor is that we'll be given medicine to make us feel better. While short-term relief is what we're after, could our reliance on antibiotics be harming us in the long run? It turns out that overusing or misusing antibiotics may result in antibiotic resistance – one of the world's most concerning public health problems according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). So, how do you know when to say yes and when to say no to antibiotics?

Bacteria versus Viruses

The culprits of what ail us come in two main forms – bacterial infections and viruses. Our bodies are home to lots of non-harmful bacteria that help keep us healthy. However, disease-causing bacteria can disrupt our health and result in infections like strep throat. Viruses are smaller than bacteria. They make us sick by attacking healthy cells resulting in illnesses like the flu. Antibiotics are only effective in treating infections caused by bacteria.


closeup of a pile of pillsThe development of antibiotics like penicillin revolutionized the way doctors treat patients. These drugs are credited with preventing diseases from spreading and reducing serious health complications. Unfortunately, many antibiotics that used to work have either stopped working or are less effective. This is what's known as antibiotic resistance. It occurs when bacteria figure out a way to protect themselves from antibiotics. Once this happens, the bacteria then passes on the strategy to other bacteria to help them survive antibiotic treatment. While some resistance is expected, the overuse and misuse of antibiotics is outpacing the normal rate of antibiotic resistance.

Overusing and Misusing Antibiotics

The CDC estimates that 1 in 3 antibiotic prescriptions are unnecessary – in part due to the difficulty of identifying if symptoms are caused by a bacterial infection or a virus. For instance, a sore throat can be due to either a bacterial infection or a virus. So, what happens if you take antibiotics, which only work on bacteria, for a sore throat that’s caused by a virus? The antibiotic will still attack bacteria in your body, except the attack is on healthy or neutral bacteria. This hastens the onset of antibiotic resistance. It's important to remember that antibiotics do not work on:

  • Colds
  • Flu
  • Bronchitis
  • Most coughs
  • Most sore throats
  • Some ear infections
  • Some sinus infections
  • Stomach flu

Danger Zone

woman wrapped in a blanket taking a pillAntibiotic resistance is a critical issue worldwide. Already, illnesses that were once easily treated by antibiotics are turning into serious medical conditions or resulting in death. Since antibiotic resistant bacteria can spread from person to person, it's imperative to address the problem. In response to fighting antibiotic resistance, the White House developed The National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria (CARB). The goal is to work with healthcare providers to ensure antibiotics are only prescribed when needed and for the correct dose and duration. Both healthcare providers and patients play an important role in fighting antibiotic resistance. To do your part as a patient, make sure to:

  • Let your doctor know you're concerned about antibiotic resistance.
  • Don't pressure your doctor to prescribe an antibiotic.
  • Take antibiotics exactly as prescribed and never save antibiotics or give them to someone else.
  • Ask your doctor about vaccines to prevent infections.

It's understandable to want relief when you're not feeling well. Taking unnecessary antibiotics could have far more harmful and long-lasting effects on your health though. Take the time to discuss your symptoms and treatment plan with your doctor. Remember, it's better to leave the doctor's office with a proper treatment plan, rather than an unnecessary prescription for antibiotics.