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Do you really need that antibiotic?

When you feel crummy, it's natural to want a quick fix. Many people think that means an antibiotic.

But antibiotics don't fight illnesses that are caused by viruses. Antibiotics only work on illnesses caused by bacteria. If antibiotics are taken when they are not needed, it can make them less effective for treating illnesses that really do require an antibiotic. And the overuse of antibiotics can kill off good bacteria in the gut, making people more vulnerable to other illnesses that can be difficult to treat.

Many very common illnesses are caused by viruses. If you're sick with the flu, a cold, bronchitis, a cough, sore throat or ear infection, the best treatment usually is:

  • get plenty of rest
  • drink lots of fluids, and
  • take over-the-counter medicines to help relieve symptoms.

Occasionally, there are times when you really do need an antibiotic. Antibiotics are often used to treat pneumonia, bladder infections, skin infections and strep throat. They might also be used to treat sinus infections or ear infections, but your doctor should help you determine if they are needed.

Some of the things I consider before deciding to prescribe an antibiotic is whether you have a high fever, breathing problems or pain, and how long you've been sick. If it's been more than 10 days, an antibiotic may be needed.

If you do receive an antibiotic, make sure to take it exactly as prescribed. Don't quit taking it if you feel better in a day or two. That can help bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics, which is a growing problem in health care.


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