Antibiotics: When They’re Helpful, When They’re Not

Medical prescriptionIf you’ve ever suffered a relentless cough or congestion that just won’t stop, chances are you’ve probably asked your doctor for antibiotics to offer relief. While antibiotics can work wonders for clearing up bacterial infections, they are useless when combating viral infections. The trouble is, often times both bacterial and viral infections present very similar symptoms.

So, when do antibiotics help and when do they hurt?  

When Antibiotics are Necessary

To determine if your infection is bacterial or viral, your doctor will run some tests and assess factors like fever,  the length of time you’ve had symptoms, and how your breathing sounds. Illnesses such as sinus infections, bronchitis, or strep throat definitely need an antibiotic in order to get better, as they fall into the bacterial category.

It’s important to know what you’re dealing with specifically because while sinus infections and colds may look almost identical in nature, antibiotics are helpful only for the sinus infections and are actually harmful for the colds. In addition, antibiotics won’t work for the flu. Learn more about how to tell the difference between a cold and the flu.

Once you begin antibiotics for a bacterial infection, you should start feeling much improved after a few days. However,  it’s crucial you continue on with your medication (even after your symptoms subside) until you’ve taken the full prescription. Otherwise, you may find yourself back in the same bacterial boat a short time later.

When Antibiotics are Harmful

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to 30 percent of antibiotics prescribed for outpatients are unnecessary. Many times, patients insist on leaving the doctor’s office with an antibiotic prescription in-hand, even when the provider believes the infection is most likely viral in nature.

In these cases, the side effects of the antibiotic can actually do more harm than good, resulting in bigger problems than a sore throat and rattling cough. An article that appeared in U.S. News & World Report notes that “although considered miracle drugs when first discovered…antibiotics are not harmless. Studies show that antibiotics, in general, cause one in five emergency department visits due to rashes, allergic reactions, and diarrhea.”

Sometimes, viral infections turn into bacterial infections if the case is severe. At that point, antibiotics would then be prescribed. However, it’s important to note that plenty of viral infections heal on their own over time with plenty of rest, liquids, and home-relief methods like steam showers and sleeping with a humidifier.

Distinguishing Differences Between Viral and Bacterial Infections

In general, while both infections yield similar symptoms,  viral infections may be less severe than bacterial infections. Some signs that you may be fighting a bacterial infection as opposed to the common cold or a virus are:

  • a prolonged elevated temperature of 100.4  degrees Fahrenheit or higher
  • shortness of breath
  • persistent symptoms lasting longer than 10 days


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