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Proceed with caution: to take or not to take antibiotics

As we approach fall and winter, also known as cold and flu season, it is important to understand when an antibiotic is needed and when it is not.

When we feel under the weather, we expect and maybe even insist on being prescribed an antibiotic. It’s normal to want to get better fast. Before prescribing an antibiotic, however, your provider will need to determine whether a bacterial or viral infection is the cause of your illness.

Antibiotics should not be used to treat illnesses such as the common cold, bronchitis, and some upper respiratory infections. In most cases, these are viral infections, and antibiotics are ineffective in treating viruses. Most viral infections can be effectively treated at home.

Here are some at-home treatment tips for viral infections:

  • Get lots of rest.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Keep a humidifier by your bed to help with stuffiness.
  • Use saline nasal sprays or drops for a stuffy nose.
  • If you have a sore throat, try using ice chips, throat lozenges or spray.
  • If you have a fever, you can take a fever reducer such as Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Motrin/Advil (ibuprofen).

Common bacterial infections, such as strep throat, meningitis, and sinus infections, require treatment with an antibiotic. If you have one of these, your doctor may give you a prescription for an antibiotic. Antibiotics are a safe, effective tool when used to treat bacterial infections. It is very important to take antibiotics as prescribed and finish all your prescriptions, even after you begin to feel better.

Common side effects from antibiotics include nausea, upset stomach, diarrhea and loss of appetite. This may result from the antibiotic killing good bacteria in your gut. Eating yogurt or taking a probiotic while taking your antibiotic can help minimize this side effect.

Be Aware: Overuse of antibiotics can lead to bacteria becoming resistant and the antibiotic not working for you in the future.

Ways you can help prevent both viral and bacterial infections include:

  • Washing your hands properly and often.
  • Avoiding those who are sick and staying home when you are sick.
  • Covering your mouth and nose when sneezing and coughing.
  • Making sure you are up to date with COVID and flu vaccines.
  • If you can get well without taking a course of antibiotics, then that’s the best course of action.
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