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Are antibiotics putting your health at risk?

If you see a doctor for a runny nose, cough or sore throat this season, don’t automatically expect a prescription for antibiotics. While antibiotics were developed to treat bacterial infections, they don’t treat many common illnesses – and if used inappropriately, they can have serious consequences.

When to take antibiotics

First things first: Antibiotics are only effective at treating bacterial infections. Bacterial infections are caused by bacteria, which are single-celled microorganisms that thrive in many different types of environments. Examples of bacterial infections include:

  • Strep throat
  • Bladder infections
  • Staph infections
  • Severe sinus infections that last more than two weeks
  • Some ear infections

Antibiotics are not effective at treating viral infections, which are caused by viruses. Viruses require living hosts to multiply and survive. Common viral infections include:

  • Colds
  • Flu
  • Stomach flu
  • Regular sinus infections
  • Bronchitis
  • Sore throat that is not strep throat
  • Most ear infections

“As antibiotics don’t have any effect on viruses, they are not useful to treat those upper respiratory infections,” says Eden English, M.D., an internal medicine specialist at Piedmont Physicians Group.

To truly know if you have a viral or bacterial infection, you need to see a doctor, who can conduct tests to determine what type of infection you have.

Antibiotics side effects

Now that you know which illnesses should and should not be treated with antibiotics, it’s important to understand the potential side effects.

“Antibiotics are associated with many side effects,” says Dr. English. “They can also occasionally cause life-threatening allergic reactions.”

Mild side effects include:

  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Rash
  • Fever
  • Headaches

Antibiotics resistance

As a culture, we often hear about “antibiotic resistance.” However, this is referring to our community as a whole, not to individuals.

“Antibiotic resistance develops the more antibiotics are used. Individuals don’t generally become resistant to specific antibiotics,” she explains. “Rather, the bacteria that are found in the community develop resistance to antibiotics the more antibiotics are used in the community as a whole.”

Antibiotics resistance can be dangerous.  

“As bacteria develop resistance, infections that could previously be treated can become life threatening,” says Dr. English. “So, inappropriate use of antibiotics puts the health of the entire community at risk.”

As an advocate for your own healthcare, it’s important to talk with your physician about whether or not antibiotics are appropriate for treating your specific condition. Ask about the potential side effects of the medication and know what to expect. And never take antibiotics that were not prescribed to you or for your specific illness.

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