When to Use Antibiotics

Even though antibiotics are very useful drugs, they are not suited to treat all illnesses. Frequent and improper use of antibiotics is the main cause in the increased number of drug-resistant bacterial infections. That is why the decisions you make about using antibiotics have far-reaching effects. Being responsible in how you use antibiotics is the best way to protect your health as well as the health of your family, neighbors and co-workers.

Some useful tips to remember are:

  • Do not expect your doctor to prescribe antibiotics every time you are sick. Antibiotics are effective in treating most bacterial infections, but there is no benefit from using antibiotics to treat viral infections including colds, bronchitis or flu. Even some mild bacterial infections will resolve on their own without the use of antibiotics
  • Do not ask your healthcare provider to prescribe antibiotics if you have a viral illness. Instead, talk with them about other options. For example, a neti pot can be used to help clear nasal passages or anti-viral medications can be prescribed to treat the flu.
  • Follow your healthcare provider’s instructions when taking any medication.  This is especially important for antibiotics. Stopping treatment few days early because you are feeling better allows remaining bacteria to grow, multiple and possibly re-infect you. If you do not finish your full course of antibiotics, only the weakest bacteria are destroyed while allowing more resistant bacteria to survive.
  • Antibiotics should never be taken without a prescription. Left over antibiotics from the last time you or someone else was sick may not be appropriate for your current illness.  In addition, you are not going to have enough pills to combat the bacteria making you sick, which can lead to more resistant strains.
  • In my own personal experience, you should treat the symptoms for 10-12 days, and if symptoms have not resolved it may have turned into a bacterial infection and antibiotics would be appropriate.  In addition if you start to feel better in 5-6 days and then start to feel worse again you could have a bacterial infection and antibiotics would be appropriate for this situation as well. The exception would be a sore throat. If it has not resolved in 5-7 days, you should seek medical attention.


Centers for Disease Control