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Understanding when to use and not use antibiotics

How to talk to your doctor about antibiotics

If you are feeling sick, you might think you need to use antibiotics. We sat down with pediatrician Timothy R. Shope, MD, MPH, to talk about why it’s important to use antibiotics when only necessary and appropriate. Here’s what you need to know.

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].

When not to use antibiotics

Antibiotics do not treat viruses that cause the following [1]:

  • Colds and runny noses
  • Most sore throats
  • The flu
  • Most kinds of chest colds
  • Lasting nasal congestion caused by seasonal allergies
  • Coughs caused by asthma

The dangers of antibiotic misuse

You must use antibiotics as prescribed. There can be serious consequences if you don’t.

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

Your doctor will decide the best treatment when you are sick. Remember that antibiotics do not work on viruses. Shope warns, “Providers cannot give antibiotics just because someone wants them. We must 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.”

Know the consequences

Using antibiotics for the wrong reason can promote what’s known as antibiotic resistance. Infections caused by antibiotic-resistant germs are hard to treat [2].

They may require:

  • Extended hospital stays.
  • Extra follow-up doctor visits.
  • Costly and toxic alternatives.

How to talk to your doctor about when you need an antibiotic

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 of antibiotic use

Do:

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.”

Don’t:

Assume that you need antibiotics. Again, your doctor is the best person to decide the care you need. This includes whether you need antibiotics.

“Patients should not go in expecting to receive an antibiotic,” Shope says. “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.”

How to get help

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

Talk to your doctor or a health care concierge

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

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.

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. https://www.cdc.gov/antibiotic-use/community/about/can-do.html

[2] About antibiotic resistance. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated March 13, 2020. Accessed Aug. 3, 2021. cdc.gov/drugresistance/about.html