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Young child blowing their nose during a cold

Antibiotics: Answers to Viral Questions

By Robert Kemp, MD November 13, 2023 Posted in: Wellness, Pharmacy

Maybe you always get an antibiotic for your child’s ear infection. Or you’ve been told green nasal discharge needs an antibiotic to clear.

It’s true that antibiotics are powerful medicines that can save lives by either killing bacteria or making it difficult for the bacteria to grow and multiply. It’s not true that antibiotics are always the answer. So when you expect a prescription and your provider says no, you probably wonder: What’s the big deal?

Antibiotic Resistance

The big deal is something called antibiotic resistance. This is bacteria’s ability to defeat antibiotics and it’s becoming a more serious problem. More than 35,000 people die each year as a result of antibiotic-resistant infections, which total 2.8+ million a year in the U.S. When bacteria become resistant, antibiotics cannot fight them. That means the antibiotic doesn’t work for a condition it would normally treat or cure. Antibiotics aren’t made to "go viral" or get used for viruses which don’t respond to them. Antibiotics are for treating certain infections caused by bacteria.

How Do I Know if Antibiotics Will Help?

So the real question may be: what is causing your illness? If it is viral, antibiotics won’t help. If it is bacterial, antibiotics may help.

Antibiotics are prescribed for these bacterial illnesses:

  • Strep throat
  • Whooping cough
  • Urinary tract infection
  • Pneumonia
  • Sepsis

Antibiotics are not prescribed for these viral illnesses:

  • Colds
  • Flu
  • Runny noses (even if mucus is thick, yellow or green)
  • Most cases of bronchitis
  • Many sinus infections
  • Some ear infections

If you are prescribed an antibiotic, it’s important to take it as instructed. You should never share an antibiotic with a family member or friend. You should also watch for reactions, which can be severe and even life-threatening.

Seek immediate help for these severe side effects:

  • Severe diarrhea , which can be a symptom of C. diff (infection that can lead to severe colon damage and death)
  • Hives
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Anaphylaxis (voice changing, choking, feeling like throat is closing)

Watch for less severe side effects:

  • Rash
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Yeast infections

Reactions from antibiotics are the most common cause of medication-related emergency room visits in children.

If you have any questions or concerns about antibiotics, talk to your primary care provider.

Robert Kemp, MD
Robert Kemp, MD

Robert Kemp, MD is a Family Medicine provider at CHI St. Alexius Health in Williston, ND.

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