The goal of taking any medication is to feel better. But antibiotics aren’t always the answer.
The first thing to know is that antibiotics are only helpful if symptoms are caused by bacteria (like strep throat); they won’t do anything to relieve symptoms caused by a virus (like a sore throat or cold). The tricky thing is that symptoms of infections caused by bacteria can be very similar to those caused by a virus.
“Not everyone with throat pain or ear pain has strep or a bacterial infection, many times it is a viral infection,” explained Robert Dums, M.D., of VelocityCare, Urgent Care by Carilion Clinic. “That’s where the doctor’s examination comes in; that’s what we’re trained for, to identify the right course of treatment.”
For illnesses caused by viruses, most of the time your best bet is rest, lots of fluids and possibly an over-the-counter medication to manage pain, fever or cough.
But even when bacteria is causing the symptoms, antibiotics may not be a good idea. According to Dr. Dums, although the goal is to help patients feel better, sometimes the wait-and-see approach is the best option.
For example, some childhood ear infections, which are commonly treated with antibiotics, will actually clear up on their own. Treating the pain with acetaminophen or ibuprofen will help until the infection improves.
“In the first couple of days of the infection, antibiotics won’t help with pain anyway, and after that time most children will begin to feel better,” said Dr. Dums.
If symptoms don’t get better after two to three days, then it might be time to head back to the doctor’s office and talk about antibiotics.
So what’s the big deal about taking antibiotics, anyway? The more prescriptions are written for antibiotics around the world, the more chance there is that some bacteria will develop antibiotic resistance. Simply put, that means the bacteria can no longer be killed by an antibiotic and becomes very difficult to treat.
Health care providers will always do their best to give you advice or medication that they think is going to work, but it’s still up to you to ask questions and provide all the information necessary for them to make the best decision.
If an antibiotic is prescribed, ask the following questions:
- What are the side effects?
- How many days should you or your child take the antibiotic?
- What are some other ways to relieve symptoms?