To be really smart about antibiotics, you have to know the difference between a bacterial infection (like strep throat) and a viral infection (like a cold or the flu). Antibiotics work great for one, but are useless against the other.
Taking antibiotics when you don’t need them (for colds or the flu) isn’t smart for you, but does make bacteria “smarter,” creating new strains that resist antibiotic treatment. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has designated this as “Get Smart About Antibiotics Week,” and here, to help you do just that, are some tips from Daniel Uslan, M.D., director of the UCLA Antimicrobial Stewardship Program, which promotes appropriate use of antibiotics. Uslan says patients have a role to play in guarding against antibiotic overuse.
1. If you are seeing your doctor because you are ill, and your doctor diagnoses a viral infection, do not pressure her to prescribe antibiotics. Antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections. Instead, ask about other methods you can use to reduce your symptoms.
2. Do not assume that yellow or green mucus means you need antibiotics. Mucus can change color even with a viral infection.
3. If you are prescribed antibiotics, take them exactly as directed, even if you feel better.
4. Do not save leftover antibiotics for the next time you become sick.
5. Do not take antibiotics prescribed for someone else.
6. If your doctor suspects strep throat, ask whether a throat swab test is appropriate before he prescribes antibiotics. Only 5 to 15 percent of adult cases of sore throat are due to strep, and the majority of sore throats do not require antibiotics.
Children, who have the highest rates of antibiotic use, are of particular concern to experts, according to the CDC.
The CDC’s “Get Smart” page offers a useful rundown of common respiratory illnesses, a symptom-relief guide for viral infections, and more facts about antibiotic resistance and its dangers.