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Do You Really Need an Antibiotic?

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An antibiotic can cure a host of diseases, but it isn’t always the answer to what ails you.

Common illnesses can be caused be bacteria, viruses or sometimes both. Only illness caused by bacteria will respond to treatment with an antibiotic but using an antibiotic when it’s not necessary can contribute to antibiotic resistance, something the World Health Organization has designated one of the biggest threats to global health.

Treating Bacteria vs. Virus

Since an antibiotic works only on bacterial infections, illnesses that are caused by a virus, such as the common cold, sore throat and the flu, won’t get better with an antibiotic.

Other common conditions like a sinus or ear infection, and bronchitis can be caused by a virus or bacteria. Those illnesses may require antibiotics, but your doctor can help you determine the best course of treatment.

Strep throat, whooping cough and urinary tract infections are caused by bacteria and will likely need antibiotics to clear up the infection.

"Antibiotics are a powerful treatment when applied in the right circumstances,” said Ian Ledford, DO, a resident physician at Samaritan Internal Medicine - Corvallis. “As in any medical treatment, though, there are always tradeoffs and considerations that aren’t always obvious."

Antibiotics at Work

Antibiotics work by targeting bacteria and killing them. But it’s not just the “bad guys” that antibiotics destroy. These potent medications kill harmful bacteria as well as the beneficial bacteria that live in the body and are necessary for healthy body function.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that bacteria become resistant to antibiotics by interacting with the drug so that it is neutralized, or finding ways to mutate so the drug no longer affects it. Once those bacteria survive the antibiotics they can safely multiply and will be resistant to the next dose of that antibiotic.

According to the CDC, each year at least 2 million people in the U.S. become infected with antibiotic resistant bacteria, and 23,000 people die because those infections cannot be treated.

"Taking antibiotics unnecessarily can fuel the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria,” said Dr. Ledford. “Many bacterial infections are getting harder and harder to treat, so the more diligent we are in using antibiotics, the better. Antibiotics are an incredible tool that many people have worked tirelessly to develop; as a species we should respect this gift."

Take Antibiotics Safely

Dr. Ledford recommends these tips from the CDC to help protect yourself and your community from antibiotic resistance.

  • Ask your doctor if there are steps you can take to feel better and get symptomatic relief without using antibiotics.
  • Take the prescribed antibiotic exactly as your doctor tells you and do not skip doses.
  • Safely throw away leftover medication.
  • Ask your doctor about vaccines recommended for you and your family to prevent infections that may require an antibiotic.
  • Never take an antibiotic for a viral infection like a cold or the flu.
  • Never take antibiotics prescribed for someone else.

Read more about antibiotics and what to ask your doctor when they’re prescribed. 

Wondering if you need an antibiotic? Our SamCare locations in Corvallis, Albany and Brownsville offer same day appointments. You can schedule online up to 24 hours in advance.