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Ask the Doctor: Antibiotics

Katherine Dallow, MD, MPH, VP, Clinical Affairs

Q. When I had a sinus infection recently, my doctor didn’t prescribe anything. But don’t antibiotics help you get better?

A. Antibiotics are amazing drugs that can help you get better faster—but only if you have an infection caused by bacteria.

Most sinus infections are caused by viruses, as are colds, the flu, most sore throats, bronchitis, and many ear infections. Infections caused by bacteria include strep throat, whooping cough, and urinary tract infections.

Yet many doctors still prescribe antibiotics for viruses, often because patients ask for them. In fact, half of antibiotics prescribed are not actually needed.

Antibiotics can be life-saving, but they have risks just like any other prescription drugs. They can:

  • Lead to other health problems. Antibiotics kill both bad and good bacteria in your body, which can lead to problems such as diarrhea and yeast infections. Serious allergic reactions, permanent nerve damage, and torn tendons can also happen.
  • Result in an infection that antibiotics can’t cure. Bacteria that aren’t killed by the antibiotic may become stronger and multiply. They can stay in your body and cause severe illnesses that could require stronger treatment and possibly a hospital stay, or even surgery.

4 things you can do

Because antibiotics are overused, doctors are already finding germs stronger than the drugs we have to treat them. To protect yourself and ensure that antibiotics still work when they’re truly needed, follow these four tips:

  1. Use antibiotics only if your doctor says they are needed for a bacterial infection.
  2. Listen to your doctor if he or she says you don’t need antibiotics.
  3. Take only antibiotics prescribed for you, not anyone else.
  4. Finish all the antibiotics prescribed even if you’re feeling better, unless your doctor tells you not to. If you don’t take all the prescribed doses, it increases the chances that some bacteria will survive, grow stronger, and multiply.