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When do I really need an antibiotic?

Antibiotics are not sweets, but we pop them like jelly beans. What illnesses actually need antibiotics?

The problem:

We’re a society that seeks a quick fix to every problem,’ says medical epidemiologist Lauri Hicks, ‘and for a long time, people have thought that the magic pill for any illness is an antibiotic.’


But antibiotics only work on bacteria, not viruses – meaning they do nothing for a cold, flu, bronchitis and even most sinus infections. Hicks reminds: you may not care about the larger public-health threat, but if you want antibiotics to continue to work for you, use them sparingly.


What about your children?

Just as important, we need to quit stuffing our kids full of medication at the first sign of a sniffle.


So when you see the doctor, say you’re not desperate for a script, and that you prefer advice on the best way to treat the illness, suggests Hicks. When it comes to colds, instead of plying ourselves with drugs, we should be treating the symptoms with OTC medication and nasal sprays, and do what we as a resultsoriented society hate most: wait it out.


The point is not to avoid antibiotics at all costs, it’s to use them correctly.


What illnesses actually need antibiotics?


  • Strep throat (if it’s confirmed with a strep test)
  • Pneumonia
  • Urinary tract infection (UTI)



  • Cold or flu (they’re viral, not bacterial,so antibiotics don’t work)
  • Bronchitis (likewise, it’s almost always viral, not bacterial)



  • Ear infection (depends on whether it’s viral or bacterial)
  • Vaginal infection (depends on type)



Please, join the fight against superbugs:

1. Use antibiotics correctly. Work with your doctor to determine whether an antibiotic will truly help what’s ailing you, then follow her instructions. Any time you skip doses, don’t finish a course or drink alcohol when you’re on the antibiotic, you make it less effective and give bacteria a chance to become resistant.

2. Buy meat that is labelled as certified organic, which means it’s hormone- and antibiotic-free.

3. Ask your favourite restaurants whether they use meat raised without antibiotics. Things will only change if we ask for changes.

4. Spread the message. Start the conversation. Tell a friend.



How do you feel about using antibiotics?

Feel free to leave a comment below.


Text originally appeared in Good Housekeeping, November 2012.

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