There’s no way around it: you’ve got the latest stomach bug going around and feel awful. Desperate to feel better, you go to your primary care doctor or the nearby urgent clinic to get some answers and, you think, hopefully an antibiotic. It seems so simple. But wait!
While an antibiotic may be top of mind when you’re feeling bad, it may not be the right solution for your diagnosis — particularly if you’re dealing with a virus rather than an infection caused by bacteria.
“Many people believe a prescribed antibiotic will cure their illness when they’re coping with a cold or the flu,” said Andrew Karl Nielsen, M.D., a specialist in internal medicine and pediatrics affiliated with Maury Regional Health’s PrimeCare Clinic in Columbia. “In reality, though, antibiotics can cause more harm to your health when they are taken unnecessarily. When antibiotics are overused, your body can build up resistance to them while weakening your immune system overall.”
So, when is the right — or wrong — time for antibiotics?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are eight key things to know about how and when to use antibiotics:
- Antibiotics save lives, but they aren’t always the answer when you’re sick
- Antibiotics do not work on viruses (e.g., the common cold, flu or stomach bug)
- Antibiotics are only needed for treating certain infections caused by bacteria (e.g., strep throat, whooping cough, urinary tract infection, etc.)
- An antibiotic will not make you feel better if you have a virus
- Any time antibiotics are used, they can cause side effects (e.g., rash, dizziness, nausea, yeast infections or diarrhea)
- Taking antibiotics creates resistant bacteria
- If you do need to use antibiotics, take them exactly as prescribed
- Stay healthy to help prevent viruses by cleaning your hands, covering coughs, getting vaccinated and staying home when sick
The main thing to remember, Dr. Nielsen says, is that antibiotics are not appropriate for a virus; rather, they should be reserved for serious bacterial infections so as to prevent antibiotic resistance.
“Your immune system is crucial for fighting off infections,” Dr. Nielsen says. “The bacteria can multiply when they become resistant to antibiotics due to overuse, meaning that some bacteria can be harder to treat in the future and that there is an increased likelihood of spreading the bacteria to others.”
Talk to your doctor about antibiotic prescribing and alternative ways to feel better when coping with a virus. Visit cdc.gov/antibiotic-use for more information about when an antibiotic is the right choice.
Andrew Karl Nielsen, M.D.,
is a specialist in internal medicine and pediatrics at PrimeCare Clinic in Columbia, which is located in the Maury Regional Medical Plaza, Suite 403, at 854 W. James Campbell Blvd.