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Understanding appropriate antibiotic use

How to talk to your doctor about antibiotics

Antibiotic stewardship might be new to many of us. It’s important to understand, though. It means using antibiotics only when necessary and appropriate, which reduces harm associated with overuse and can help protect people around the world.

We sat down with pediatrician Timothy R. Shope, MD, MPH, to talk about these topics. Here’s what you need to know.

What is antibiotic stewardship?

Think about it as the smart use of antibiotics. Simply put, it is a way to ensure that antibiotics are prescribed and used correctly. 

Doing so helps you get the best treatment when you are sick. It also protects you from the harm of unnecessary antibiotic use and fights antibiotic resistance.

When to use antibiotics

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says you should take antibiotics only when you need them. Antibiotics treat only certain infections caused by bacteria. These include conditions like strep throat, whooping cough, or urinary tract infections [1].

The dangers of misuse

You must use antibiotics properly. There can be serious consequences if you misuse them.

“Using too many antibiotics for the wrong reason can make antibiotics less effective. Bacteria can mutate and become resistant to the antibiotic over time if too many antibiotics are prescribed or they’re prescribed for too long,” Shope says.  

Your doctor will decide the best treatment when you are sick. Remember that antibiotics do not work on viruses. “We cannot give antibiotics just because someone wants them. We have to consider the benefits and the risks. There are benefits, but only in certain conditions. The common cold is caused by a virus, so an antibiotic will not work against it,” Shope says.

Antibiotics will not work on viruses which cause [2]:

  • Colds and runny noses (even if the mucus is thick, yellow, or green).
  • Most sore throats (except strep throat).
  • The flu.
  • Most kinds of chest colds (bronchitis).

Antibiotics are also not necessary for:

  • Longstanding nasal congestion caused by seasonal allergies.
  • Coughs caused by asthma.

How to talk to your doctor

You and your doctor can work together. While your doctor takes the lead, you play a big part. Your role is to be aware of your symptoms. This will help you give your doctor enough details to make the right choice about treatment.

“I use the information that I get from a patient to determine whether an antibiotic is needed or not,” Shope explains. “Thinking about why you are going to the doctor before the visit will allow you to recall your symptoms and provide an efficient history that allows the doctor to make the best decision.”

The do’s and don’ts


Think about what’s going on before your visit. Doing so will prepare you to answer these questions:

  • How are you feeling?
  • What’s been causing a problem?
  • How long has this been going on?
  • What are your symptoms?

Trust your doctor. It’s OK to ask your doctor about antibiotics. But remember that your doctor knows your medical history. He or she is the best person to make decisions about your care.

“You go to the doctor to have them use their training to make the decision of what’s really best,” Shope says. “It’s just like when you take your car to the mechanic. There’s a little bit of a mystery going on there. You are relying on the experience of the person who is telling you what the diagnosis is and what treatment is necessary. You have to trust the relationship and know that doctors are making decisions with your best interest at heart.”


Assume that you need antibiotics. Again, your doctor is the best person to decide the care you need. This includes whether or not you need antibiotics.  

“Patients should not go in with their own agenda of whether or not they think they need to be on an antibiotic. The doctor always considers whether an antibiotic may be necessary or not and weighs the benefits of an antibiotic versus the potential side effects to the individual,” Shope says.

How to get help

Get help as soon as you need it. Knowing where to go will help you get what you need quickly.


If you have coverage questions, call the Health Care Concierge team at the number on your member ID card. A team member will help you understand your coverage.

You should always talk to your doctor about medications. This includes antibiotics. Asking questions is part of working with your doctor.

If you need to find a primary care provider or need care, you can search MyHealth OnLine.

[1] Antibiotic do’s & don’ts. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated January 31, 2020. Accessed September 4, 2020.

[2] Ibid