You have a fever, sore throat and stuffy nose. You’ve tried over-the-counter medications, but you just can’t seem to get any relief. Can an antibiotic help? Here’s what you should know about the benefits, risks and limitations of these life-saving medications.
How They Work
Antibiotics work by affecting the things bacterial cells have and human cells do not. For example, while human cells do not have cell walls, many types of bacteria do. Bacteria and human cells also have different cell membrane structures and do not copy DNA and build proteins in the same ways. Antibiotics take advantage of these differences to either kill bacteria or prevent them from multiplying. This helps the body ward off an infection and get on the path to recovery.
It’s important to note that while antibiotics are able to affect bacteria, they have no impact on viruses that cause the flu, common cold, bronchitis and most sore throats.
Too Much of a Good Thing
Over the last century, antibiotics have become an invaluable, life-saving weapon against infectious diseases. Unfortunately, over-use has led to superbugs that are extremely difficult to treat. In an attempt to stem the tide, doctors are becoming much more cautious about prescribing antibiotic medications to people who don’t really need them.
When to See a Doctor
In the vast majority of cases, viral infections get better without the need for medical intervention. On the other hand, a bacterial infection, such as strep throat and pneumonia, typically require antibiotic medications. In certain instances, antibiotics may become necessary for ear and sinus infections, although this isn’t always the case.
If you have troubling symptoms that don’t seem to be getting better after a few days, it’s a good idea to visit your physician for an evaluation. Doctors can perform tests to determine whether your illness is caused by a virus or bacteria.
If you do have a bacterial infection, you may receive a prescription for antibiotics. If so, it’s important to take all of your medicine, according to your doctor’s recommendations. You should also never share antibiotics, take leftover medication for a new infection, or take antibiotics for a viral infection.