Do You Know When to Take Antibiotics?

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When you head to the doctor for an illness, it’s logical to want a prescription to feel better, fast. If you leave empty handed, it can be frustrating. But, when a provider sends you off without an antibiotic, it’s actually a good thing. It means your body can fight the infection. Rossana Rosa, MD, UnityPoint Health, explains why taking an antibiotic when it’s not needed can do more harm than good.

Bacteria vs. Virus

A bacteria is a very small organism composed of a single cell, while a virus is even smaller. 

“Infections due to viruses are much more common than infections due to bacteria, especially during the fall and winter,” Dr. Rosa says.

Common viral infections include colds, the flu and bronchitis. Viruses are the main cause of sinusitis and sore throats, although, in a very small number of cases, these infections can be caused by bacteria as well. Skin infections (cellulitis) and urinary tract infections are common kinds of bacterial infections.

“If you have a fever of over 100.4 F, a fast heart rate of more than 100 beats per minute, or are feeling very short of breath, then you should see a health care provider,” Dr. Rosa says.

When to Take Antibiotics

Antibiotics can save lives but must be used correctly. They only treat infections caused by a bacteria.

“Think of it as a puzzle. For the pieces of a puzzle to fit, they need to have a complementary part. Antibiotics work by attaching to specific parts of a bacteria. Viruses just don’t have these parts, so antibiotics can never attach to them,” Dr. Rosa says.

Dr. Rosa says if you take an antibiotic when you don’t have a bacterial infection, you won’t get any better. Also, the antibiotics will still target the good bacteria in your body. When you lose your good bacteria, certain types of bacteria, like C. diff, can grow out of control in your body and give you a very aggressive type of diarrhea.

If you’ve asked yourself, “Do I need antibiotics for a sinus infection?” “Do I need antibiotics for bronchitis?” or fill in any other conditions, here’s a cheat sheet on when antibiotics could be appropriate for treatment.

Side Effects of Antibiotics

It’s important to be mindful that anytime you take antibiotics, they can be accompanied by a range of uncomfortable side effects, including:

  • Rash
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Yeast infection
  • Diarrhea

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says one out of five medication-related visits to the emergency department are from reactions to antibiotics.

Antibiotic Resistance

Dr. Rosa says another side effect of unnecessary antibiotics is some of the bacteria in your body can become resistant to antibiotics. That means if you get sick again and take the same prescription in the future, it won’t work. The CDC calls antibiotic resistance one of the biggest public health challenges of our time.

How to Treat a Virus

So, if you have a virus, and antibiotics won’t help, what can you do to treat it? Dr. Rosa says it depends.

“Infections due to influenza can be treated with antivirals, but that’s not always necessary. Most healthy individuals can handle the flu without any medication. Colds, which are caused by different types of viruses, can be treated with fluids, rest and, if needed, over-the-counter medications to help relieve congestion and coughing,” she says.

Talk to your doctor about which over-the-counter medication is right for you. Simply using ibuprofen or acetaminophen (Tylenol) might do the trick.