An easy way to tell whether you might need antibiotics

When you’re feeling sick — with a scratchy throat, a runny nose, or a fluish fever — you want nothing more than to feel better.

But while you might be tempted to ask the doctor for a prescription for antibiotics, that’s not always the best course of action. Overuse of antibiotics helps create more antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which is a serious problem that could mean a future where none of our antibiotics work anymore. If or when that happens, people could die from simple infections.

Even more relevant to a person who is feeling sick, antibiotics don’t help if you’re fighting off a virus, and could even make you feel worse by eliminating good bacteria in your stomach.

To help clear up any confusion, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention created the simple chart below to help people figure out whether they should talk to a doctor about antibiotics or simply opt for some bed rest and fluids. Keep in mind that this only covers a selection of common complaints; always consult a doctor if you have a high fever or any other serious or mysterious symptoms.

Just say no

You may wonder if it’s enough for doctors to understand the chart above. After all, they’re the ones with the prescription pads. But patients may not realise their own power.

“Patient expectations can drive inappropriate prescribing,” a team of researchers wrote last year, in an essay for The Conversation. “Studies show that physicians often write prescriptions based on their beliefs about what patients expect.”

What’s more, the researchers found, in a study of an inner-city emergency room, even among patients who know that antibiotics don’t work against viruses, many still would opt to take them for what’s probably a viral infection.

That’s largely because taking an antibiotic when you most likely have something viral is generally seen as no-risk: It probably won’t help, but it also won’t hurt.

The problem, the researchers point out, is that this perspective is wrong. It can hurt. Aside from the growing global threat of antibiotic resistance, there are personal risks as well. Antibiotics can spur secondary infections and cause nasty side effects like acid reflux and yeast infections.

Of course, if your doctor thinks you need antibiotics, you should listen. But if you have a mild sore throat and a runny nose, don’t plead with your doctor for meds. Instead, plan on staying home from work, drinking tea all day, and getting plenty of sleep. Not so bad, right?

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