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When to use Antibiotics

Release Date: January 25, 2016
If you have a viral infection, antibiotics won't help you feel better or get well sooner. In fact, they can even be harmful.


When to Use Antibiotics

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has news for you this cold and flu season: antibiotics don't kill viruses - never have, never will! And it's not really news. It's a long-documented medical fact. Antibiotics can only treat illnesses caused by bacteria. Colds, the flu, most sore throats, bronchitis, and many sinus and ear infections are caused by viruses, not bacteria. If you have a viral infection, antibiotics won't help you feel better or get well sooner. In fact, they can even be harmful.

Taking antibiotics when they are not needed is fueling an increase in drug-resistant bacteria, which cause infections that are more difficult, and sometimes even impossible, to cure. Almost all types of bacteria have become less responsive to antibiotic treatment. These "superbugs" can quickly spread to family members, schoolmates and coworkers, and threaten our communities with illnesses that were once easily treatable. Combating antibiotic resistance is a priority for the CDC with estimates of more than 2 million resistant infections occurring annually in the United States alone.

Antibiotics can also lead to side effects, such as diarrhea or an upset stomach. Some side effects can be quite serious, or even life-threatening. Take the case of Clostridium difficile (C. difficile or C. diff) infections - these are bacterial infections that cause severe diarrhea. In the past, most C. difficile infections were connected to a recent hospital stay, but new studies show that children in the general community - without a recent hospital stay - account for as many as 7 out of 10 pediatric C. difficile infections. Many children who got sick with C. difficile had recently taken a course of antibiotics for a respiratory infection - infections that are usually caused by viruses and therefore not even helped by the antibiotics.

When antibiotics are used for viral infections, you are not getting the best care. A course of antibiotics won't fight the virus, help you feel better, or lead to a quicker recovery. It may even be harmful. If you are diagnosed with a viral illness, ask what you can do to help relieve your symptoms and make you more comfortable while your immune system does gets to work. Suggestions might include drinking plenty of fluids, getting a lot of rest, using over the counter medications (always discuss with your doctor first), using a cool mist humidifier, or gargling with salt water. Do not ask for antibiotics, though.

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