Back to articles

When antibiotics aren't the answer

Adventist Health

Being sick is no fun.

After seeing your colleague cough all over their keyboard, you run for the door, hoping you've escaped that nasty bug spreading through the office. Taking preventative measures, you begin gulping down tea by the gallon, searching for surgical masks online, and discussing your preferred brand of cough medicine with the grocery store checker. In a matter of hours though, you've succumbed to that cold that seems to always be "going around."

After a miserable week, you finally give in and make an appointment with your primary care provider or head to a nearby urgent care clinic. You barge in, weak yet determined, demanding antibiotics to cure whatever dark illness this must be.

The scenario may sound a bit dramatic. But we all know the feeling of being sick and the urge to do anything to get better. While antibiotics are helpful for curing serious bacterial infections, such as a urinary tract infection or an ear infection, they are ineffective at treating everyday viruses, like the common cold or flu.

"There's a misperception out there that when you get sick, antibiotics will clear everything up quickly so you can get back to your regular routine," says Gina Easley, FNP, at Adventist Health Medical Group – Urgent Care Rockwood. "While antibiotics are incredibly useful for curing bacterial infections that won't go away on their own, getting rest, drinking plenty of fluids, and taking care of your health are typically the best medicine for overcoming viral infections such as the flu."

Easley also stresses that people should stay home from work and school to prevent spreading the sickness to others.

Antibiotics cure many illnesses - bacterial ones

Antibiotics can be used to treat more serious bacterial infections that won't go away on their own. There are many types of antibiotics depending on the bacteria they are used to fight. The type of antibiotics used to treat an illness can also vary depending on the bacteria's resistance to the medicine.

More common bacterial infections that require an antibiotic prescription include:

  • Ear infections
  • Urinary tract infections (UTIs)
  • Strep throat
  • Pneumonia (some cases)
  • Meningitis
  • Skin infections, such as those caused by staph

Taking unnecessary antibiotics puts you at risk for illness

Each year, 154 million antibiotic prescriptions are written in the U.S., 47 million of which are unnecessary. Overprescribing antibiotics is a dangerous precedent. More and more doctors aren't relying on prescribing antibiotics for treatment or giving in to pressure from patients.

Taking antibiotics for unnecessary reasons boosts your body's resistance to them over time. This could prevent antibiotics from fighting a serious bacterial infection down the road.

In fact, in the U.S. there are 2 million cases each year when antibiotic-resistant infections cannot be treated as effectively as doctors would like. 

Sometimes the best medicine is some R&R

While antibiotics offer a powerful punch against bacterial infections, they are completely ineffective when treating viral infections, including:

"Taking antibiotics for viral infections might offer some reassurance to patients, but in reality, this is not a healthy decision," says Easley. "It actually puts you or a loved one's health more at risk."

Patients with everyday illnesses, such as the cold and flu, will often feel better in a matter of a few days. Fever and sore throat typically last four to five days. A cough or runny nose should run its course in a couple weeks.

Sometimes the best answer is to wait it out, no matter how exhausting it is to be sick. High-quality sleep can serve as powerful medicine, whether you're sick with a cold or have a more serious condition, including heart disease.

You can also take simple steps to protect you and your family from bacterial and viral infections. This includes regularly washing your hands and staying up to date on your vaccines. You can learn more healthy habits and ways to avoid the spread of illness by visiting the CDC's website.