Written by SMH’s Steve Kamm, MD, & Johnna Hommell, LPN
Antibiotics, first used in the 1940s, are among the greatest advances in medicine, but they are not a cure-all. In fact, in some cases, it’s worse for your health to take an antibiotic than to just let an illness run its course.
Using antibiotics when you really don’t need to can create bacteria that are harder to kill, and you may unnecessarily suffer antibiotics side effects like stomach upset, diarrhea and allergic reaction.
There’s also a widespread problem of antibiotic resistance caused by overprescribing the medications. To slow this trend, it’s important that patients understand the dangers of taking antibiotics for illnesses the medications cannot treat.
So when should you take antibiotics?
Virus vs. Bacterial infection
Antibiotics are designed to treat bacterial infections like strep throat, but they are useless against viruses like cold and flu.
Bacteria are living organisms in a single cell. They are everywhere, and while most cause no harm, some cause illness when they invade the human body. Prescription antibiotics can kill bacteria and stop its growth.
Viruses are different. They are not alive, and they cannot exist on their own. Healthy immune systems can fight off some viruses before they cause illness, but others can make you uncomfortably sick.
Antibiotics will not work against viral infections like flu and bronchitis. With viruses, basic, conservative management with Tylenol and over-the-counter cold medicines, along with the “tincture of time,” is the best treatment approach. Taking an antibiotic for a viral illness can create bacteria that are harder to kill, making the medication ineffective down the road, when you might really need it.
Common colds need common sense. Respiratory viruses usually go away in a week or two, without treatment. If you have a stuffy nose or scratchy throat, treat the symptoms that are making you uncomfortable using fever reducers, saline nasal spray, throat lozenges, warm compresses and drinking lots of liquids.
Did You Know
- Each year, thousands in the US get very sick from C. Difficile diarrhea caused by antibiotics. For some, it’s fatal.
- 98% of acute sinusitis cases are caused by a viral infection or allergies; these resolve in 10 days without antibiotics.
- Antibiotics are vastly over prescribed for viral pharyngitis (non-strep sore throat) and viral, acute bronchitis.
- Antibiotics’ side effects can include nausea, dizziness, abdominal pain, rashes and other symptoms.
- Each year, tens of thousands of patients require medical care for an allergic reaction to an antibiotic that should not have been prescribed.
What’s Got You Sick?
Remember: Antibiotics treat bacterial infections. For viral infections, ask your healthcare provider for tips on how to relieve symptoms until you feel better.
Cold / Runny Nose — Virus — Treat symptoms
Bronchitis / Chest Cold (in otherwise healthy kids & adults) — Virus — Treat symptoms
Whooping Cough — Bacteria — See a doctor
Flu — Virus — Treat symptoms
Strep Throat — Bacteria — See a doctor
Sore Throat (not strep) — Virus — Treat symptoms
Fluid in Middle Ear — Virus — Treat symptoms
Urinary Tract Infection — Bacteria — See a doctor
Still Not Sure?
Get help from our Symptom Checker: Download the SMH Urgent Care app for free, fast access to our symptom checker tool, which can help you figure out what’s ailing you and whether a doctor visit is in order.
Ask a Doctor: Our six Sarasota Memorial Urgent Care Centers are open daily 8 am to 8 pm to help you feel better faster. Save time and your spot in line when you check in online or through the SMH Urgent Care app’s Save My Spot feature.
Board-certified Emergency Medicine physician Steve Kamm, MD, has treated Sarasota Memorial patients for more than 25 years in the SMH Emergency Care and Urgent Care centers.
Johnna Hommell, LPN, supervises daily operations at Sarasota Memorial’s six urgent care centers and carries a bachelor’s degree in healthcare administration. She has been with Sarasota Memorial for nearly three decades.