Do You Really Need an Antibiotic?


Dr. Katherine Minnick, an infectious disease expert, discusses when it’s appropriate to use an antibiotic and what are the consequences of taking antibiotics unnecessarily.

Ugh, you wake up in the morning with a raw, scratchy throat. You are certain you have a cold coming on. What should you do? If you are like many Americans your first thought may be to see your primary care doctor to get an antibiotic. But, did you know that an antibiotic will not do a thing to lessen the effects of your common cold or get you feeling better faster?

We talked with Dr. Katherine Minnick, an infectious disease expert, to learn when you really need an antibiotic and what some of the dangerous consequences are when they are prescribed unnecessarily.

The number of antibiotics prescribed is staggering. In 2014, over 266 million courses of antibiotics were dispensed. “According to the CDC, this equates to more than five prescriptions written each year for every six people in the United States. But, what’s troubling is that at least 30% of these antibiotic prescriptions are unnecessary, meaning that no antibiotic was needed at all,” says Dr. Minnick.

There is no denying that antibacterial drugs have been an incredibly effective medication. Their success is reflected by their continued use and the marked decrease in disease and death from bacterial infections since their introduction 80 years ago. However, for all of the good antibiotics have done for our health, they are not without their negative effects. “It is because of these side-effects that we must educate not only patients, but healthcare professionals as well about when prescribing an antibiotic is appropriate,” says Dr. Minnick.

Antibiotics Can Do More Harm than Good

Taking an antibiotic when you have a virus versus a bacterial infection may do you more harm than good. “Antibiotic use can increase your risk of getting an antibiotic-resistant infection later,” says Dr. Minnick. Antibiotics kill the healthy bacteria in your gut, allowing more harmful bacteria such as C. difficile, a severe form of diarrhea usually caused by antibiotic exposure, to grow in its place. Antibiotics are responsible for one out of five ER visits for adverse drug events, and they are the most common cause of ER visits for adverse drug events in children under 18.

When You DON’T Need an Antibiotic

So with all of the good and bad associated with antibiotic use, the question arises: when do you really need one? “I believe it’s best to first know when an antibiotic will not be effective,” says Dr. Minnick. “If you have a cold or flu, antibiotics won’t work for you. Really for the overwhelming majority of common respiratory infections, antibiotics are not helpful,” reminds Dr. Minnick. Taking an antibiotic when you have a virus will not cure the infection, help you feel better faster or keep others from catching your illness. 

When You DO Need an Antibiotic

There are times, however, when an antibiotic is the clear choice to get you back on the path to wellness. Those include bacterial infections such as strep throat, whooping cough and urinary tract infections. Antibiotics may also be helpful for sinus infections, middle ear infections or bronchitis, but often times you can take a “wait and see” approach with these issues before taking an antibiotic. Dr. Minnick suggests you ask your doctor a few simple questions each time you are prescribed an antibiotic including:

When you are taking an antibiotic it is also important that you do not skip doses or share your drug with others. “A good tip to remember the next time you visit your doctor while feeling under the weather is to ask for advice – not an antibiotic,” says Dr. Minnick.

Common conditions antibiotics treat