When Antibiotics Aren’t the Answer

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When Antibiotics Aren’t the Answer

You need TLC, not drugs, to beat bronchitis and other viral infections

Your grandparents called them “wonder drugs” when antibiotics first came on the scene, and for good reason.

Antibiotics have saved countless lives since they came into widespread use in the 1940s. Common infections that used to be death sentences were almost instantly tamed when antibiotics became part of a doctor’s disease-fighting arsenal.

But this great success has led to a dangerous downfall. Antibiotics have been overprescribed. They are used when they shouldn’t be. That can cause a lot more harm than good.

It pays to know all you can about the use — and misuse — of antibiotics. Take this quiz, adapted from the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), to learn how to keep antibiotics the wonder drugs they truly are.

Q: Do antibiotics cure all infections?

A: No. They only work against infections caused by bacteria. They don’t cure infections caused by viruses, such as colds, the flu, and most coughs and sore throats.

Q: What is “antibiotic resistance”?

A: When antibiotics are used improperly, some bacteria become resistant, so the antibiotics don’t kill them. Resistant bacteria sometimes can be treated with different antibiotics. These medicines may have to be given in a hospital. Some resistant bacteria cannot be treated at all.

Q: What can I do to stop antibiotic resistance?

A: Don’t ask your doctor for antibiotics if you have a cold or the flu. You simply have to let these viruses run their course. If your illness grows severe or if you’re still sick after two weeks, call your doctor.

Q: When are — and aren’t — antibiotics helpful?

A: The AAFP offers the following basic guidelines:

  • Colds and flu. Viruses cause these illnesses. Antibiotics won’t help.
  • Cough or bronchitis. These, too, are almost always caused by viruses. But not always. If you have a problem breathing or an illness that lasts a long time, bacteria may be involved. Your doctor may decide to try using an antibiotic.
  • Sore throat. Most sore throats are caused by viruses and don’t need antibiotics. However, strep throat is caused by bacteria. A throat swab and a lab test are usually needed before your doctor will prescribe an antibiotic for strep throat.
  • Ear infections. Antibiotics can help some, but not all, ear infections.
  • Sinus infections. Antibiotics are often used to treat sinus infections caused by bacteria. Your doctor can tell you if bacteria are behind your sinus trouble.
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