When you should take antibiotics

What are antibiotics?

Antibiotics are medicines that help fight bacteria that make us sick. Antibiotics do not help fight viruses, such as a cold, the flu, or most sore throats, and should not be taken for these illnesses.

When should I take antibiotics?

Antibiotics are powerful medicines, and we want them to work when we need them the most. Taking antibiotics when they are not needed can cause them to lose their power against the bacteria that make us sick. This is called antibiotic resistance, which means that when you really need an antibiotic medicine to fight an infection, it may not work very well or at all.

To help keep this from happening, your doctor should not prescribe antibiotics for any illnesses except those caused by bad bacteria. Acute bronchitis, for example, is a very common illness that is mostly caused by a virus and cannot be helped by an antibiotic. Another example is sinusitis , or sinus infection, in adults. About 15-20 percent of antibiotics prescribed to adults are for treating sinusitis, which is a common problem associated with colds and allergies. Most adults, however, do not need antibiotics for their sinusitis, which is most often caused by viruses and not bacteria.

How will I know if I am getting quality health care and getting (or not getting) antibiotics?

Antibiotics were made to fight bacteria that make us sick and are the best medicine when taken for the right reasons and in the right way. You and your doctor should talk about when you really need an antibiotic. If your doctor thinks that your sickness is caused by a virus and you do not need an antibiotic, you can talk about what other things that you can do to feel better. Your doctor should not prescribe an antibiotic if your sickness is not caused by a bacterial infection.

What questions should I ask my doctor about antibiotics?

Knowing when and how to take antibiotics can be confusing, and you should always follow the doctor's directions when taking an antibiotic. Here are some questions to ask your doctor:

Click here to learn more about on when antibiotics can help you from the Choosing Wisely Campaign and Consumer Reports, including sinusitis,  pink eye, and other conditions.  Learn about 5 questions to ask your doctor about antibiotics when considering antibiotic treatment options.