Antibiotics: When They Can’t Help

By Quate, Sue 
March 21, 2017

Antibiotics: When They Can’t Help

Antibiotics are strong medicines that can stop some infections and save lives. For more than two generations, these powerful medications have kept many deadly bacterial infections in check and added 10 years to the average American’s life.

But antibiotics can cause more harm than good when they aren’t used the way they should be. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the more antibiotics you take, the higher the chance that you will be infected with resistant bacteria.

Do antibiotics work against all infections?

No. Antibiotics work only against bacterial infections, not viral infections.

What is “bacterial resistance”?

Antibiotics usually kill bacteria or stop them from growing, but some bacteria have grown stronger and antibiotics won’t work against them. These stronger bacteria are called “resistant” because they resist antibiotics. Resistant bacteria develop when antibiotics are used too often or incorrectly.                      

According to Harvard’s Focus Online newsletter, the direct medical cost of treating resistant strains of bacteria is much greater than that of treating bugs that are not resistant. Although hard to quantify, some estimate that the impact of antimicrobial resistance on annual health care costs is as much as $30 billion.

When do I need antibiotics?

That depends on what’s causing your infection. Following are some guidelines:

  • Colds and flu: Viruses cause these illnesses, and they can’t be cured with antibiotics.

  • Cough or bronchitis: Viruses almost always cause these. If you have a lung condition or the illness lasts a long time, your infection may be caused by bacteria, and your doctor may decide to try an antibiotic treatment.

  • Sore throat: Most sore throats are caused by viruses and don’t require antibiotics. But bacteria do cause strep throat, which requires treatment with antibiotics.

  • Ear infections: In a significant number of cases, the middle ear contains no harmful bacteria and symptoms will subside on their own within 24 hours. Some cases are caused by allergies, particularly to milk and dairy products. It’s best to seek out the underlying cause before treating with antibiotics.

  • Sinus infections: You may need an antibiotic if you have a headache and yellow or green, rather than clear, mucus coming from your nose.

How should I take an antibiotic my doctor prescribes?

Follow your doctor’s directions carefully. Don’t stop taking it because you feel better. Taking less of an antibiotic when you need it will not help prevent antibiotic resistance.




March 21, 2017


Staywell for Life/August 2005

Reviewed By:  

Sylvia ByrdSylvia Byrd RN MBA