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Do I Really Need an Antibiotic?

If you are a battling a cold and a sore throat, chances are you want relief ASAP. Nothing seems to help, and you are running out of patience—not to mention, your last box of tissues. Is it time to ask your doctor for an antibiotic? The answer might surprise you.

Many people think antibiotics will solve the problem and alleviate symptoms, but they are not a cure-all. Antibiotics specifically target bacteria, but most common illnesses, like colds, aren’t caused by bacteria. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly one-third of the antibiotics prescribed in the U.S. are unnecessary.

Why should you be concerned?

The unnecessary use of antibiotics has caused widespread resistance to the very drugs that are meant to help us.

“Sometimes a patient has used so many antibiotics that the bacteria residing in their body have evolved, making most antibiotics no longer work for them,” said Gina Montion, MD, a pediatrician with Banner Health Center. “This could be a big problem if someone develops a life-threatening infection from a bacterium that has grown resistant to all the antibiotics available.”

Antibiotics can have mild to life-threatening side effects, such as diarrhea, rashes and allergic reactions. According to the CDC, adverse reactions to antibiotics are responsible for 1 in 5 medication-related emergency room visits.

“Many think antibiotics are no big deal, but in reality, these side effects can happen to anyone, even if they have tolerated the antibiotic before,” said Randy S. Gelow, MD, a family medicine physician at Banner Health Center.

So before heading to your doctor or local urgent care, learn what antibiotics actually do, which conditions they can and cannot treat and if it’s worth scheduling an appointment or buying another box of tissues and waiting your cold out.

What do antibiotics actually do?

The word antibiotics means “against life,” because they fight the living organisms that make you sick. Antibiotics fight bacteria by either killing it or stopping it from growing. They don’t treat viruses (like the common cold or flu) or fungi (like ringworm or athlete’s foot).

What can antibiotics help treat?

What can’t antibiotics help treat?

  • Cold
  • Flu
  • Viral bronchitis
  • Sore throats
  • Coughs

“Keep in mind that most coughs can last up to 18 days after an upper respiratory infection, so you’ll need to be patient,” Dr. Gelow said. “Coughs do not require antibiotics, and this is hard for some people who want instant gratification.”

When should you schedule an appointment?

Most viruses clear up after a week or two, and antibiotics won’t help. So, before you book that doctor visit, here are some things you can do to ease your discomfort:

  • Rest
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Gargle warm saltwater
  • Take over-the-counter pain reliever
  • Use a humidifier to reduce congestion

“If your symptoms persist after a few weeks without improvement, it may be time to see your doctor,” Dr. Montion said. “Seek immediate attention if you’re having trouble breathing or are in severe pain.”

We shouldn’t fear antibiotics, but we must also understand their role in helping us stay healthy. Is it time to schedule an appointment? Let one of our Banner Health specialists help you.

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