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Antibiotics: Myth vs. Fact

Note: This article is over 60 days old, and may contain information that is out of date, or has been superseded by newer information.

It starts with a runny nose and then turns into a sore throat. Before you know it, you’re sneezing and coughing all over the place. Think you need to visit your doctor for an antibiotic? You may be surprised to hear that the answer is usually “no.”

How do you know if you need an antibiotic? Check out our list below. We reveal the facts behind the myths and help you decide when to visit the doctor and how to use antibiotics appropriately.

Myth #1: Antibiotics work against the common cold and flu.

Fact: Most illnesses (for example, the common cold, most coughs/bronchitis, the flu, and most sore throats) are caused by viruses, and antibiotics do not kill viruses. They only kill bacteria. If you have a viral infection, taking an antibiotic will not get rid of the infection or make you feel better any faster.

Myth #2: A runny nose that is green or yellow in color means the infection is bacterial and an antibiotic is needed.

Fact: Yellow or green mucous does not mean that the infection is bacterial; this can also occur with a viral infection. Therefore, the need for antibiotics cannot be determined strictly by the color of your nasal discharge.

Myth #3: Taking an antibiotic is harmless; therefore it can’t hurt to take one “just in case.”

Fact: Taking any medication can lead to unwanted side effects and the risk of drug interactions or allergic reactions. In addition, the overuse of antibiotics enables bacteria to adapt and overcome the medicine’s effect. The antibiotic won’t work as well when you truly do need it. Overuse of antibiotics can lead to problems such as methicillin resistant staph aureus (MRSA).

Myth #4: If an antibiotic is needed, I can stop taking it once I feel better.

Fact: Although you feel better, bacteria still may be present. Take the full course. Otherwise, the infection may come back. Stopping an antibiotic too early also can lead to resistant bacteria.

Myth #5: When I start feeling sick, I can use some of the antibiotic that I never finished from my last prescription.

Fact: See Myth #4 —Have no leftovers! Equally important to know is that an antibiotic targets specific bacteria. Even if your new infection is caused by bacteria, the left-over antibiotic may not treat it.

When in doubt, call your doctor to see if an antibiotic is needed, but don’t be disappointed if you don’t receive a prescription. By avoiding an unnecessary antibiotic, you’ll be doing your part to ensure that antibiotics remain effective when you really need them to work for you.