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5 Ways to tell if you need an antibiotic

Communicable Diseases By Ariba Khaliq , Onlymyhealth editorial team / Jul 15, 2015
5 Ways to tell if you need an antibiotic

Doctors often use a combination of experience and science when deciding to prescribe an antibiotic. Here are five things most physicians consider before making that decision.

Quick Bites
  • Antibiotics are excellent at killing bacteria but useless at killing viruses.
  • If flu is circulating in your community, you won’t get an antibiotic.
  • Lingering symptoms increase your likelihood of getting an antibiotic.
  • Mucous colour is considered an unreliable indicator of need for antibiotic.

Many of us think antibiotics are a quick fix for a stuffy nose, cough, and sore throat and as soon as we experience symptoms of cold, we plead our doctor to prescribe antibiotics. If he refuses, we give him a variety of alibis, such as “It healed me completely the last time,” “I can’t take any leaves from office,” “I have my brother’s wedding coming up and I have to completely recover by then.”

We don’t understand why our doctor might not be willing to prescribe the pills—while antibiotics are great killers of bacteria (as long as you use the right drug for right bacteria), they can’t kill viruses. And most conditions like flu and other respiratory problems are caused by viruses. So, before using all your alibi power to convince your doctor or self-medicating yourself, know when the antibiotics work and when they don’t.

The following are five ways to tell if you need an antibiotic.

treating stuffy nose with antibiotic


A bacterial infection can cause fever, chills and shakes, but so can a viral illness such as flu. Your doctor will consider a few possibilities while calculating your likelihood of having flu, such as if flu is circulating in your area or the number of patients who have been reported to have flu against the possibility of a bacterial infection. If flu has been circulating in your area and you have fever, you’ll probably leave your doctor’s office without an antibiotic and will get a flu shot the next year.

How long you’ve been sick for

Lingering viral infections can sometimes, turn into bigger problems, such as a sinus infection and bacteria may join the treat. So, if your symptoms have been hanging around for weeks, the chances of getting an antibiotic go up. However, most times, virus and not bacteria is the reason behind long-standing symptoms and it is still not the best way to determine your need for antibiotic.

The colour of your mucus

During a viral infection, your mucus tends to be thin and clear, while green or yellow nasal secretion is a sign of bacteria. It’s not so simple, though; most greenish discharges are viral. Overall, experts consider mucus colour to be an unreliable signal of the need for an antibiotic.

Sore throat

Before considering an antibiotic, your doctor will look for white spots on your sore, red-looking throat. A sore throat is a classic initial symptom of a cold, but in case you’re lacking other symptoms of cold (such as a runny nose), you might be suffering from strep throat. This condition does require antibiotics to stop the dangerous bacterial growth, and your doctor might ask you to take a culture or undergo rapid antigen test.

ways to tell if you need antibiotic


The strongest way to determine if you truly need an antibiotic is to get tested. Your bodily gunk can be tested under a culture in which bacteria are grown in lab and tested. This might take a day or two and doctors often forego this and prescribe a lab test instead.

Although doctors consider the abovementioned guidelines to mull over the confusion between a bacterial and viral infection, it still is a gray area. It’s difficult to differentiate a severe viral infection from a mild-to-moderate bacterial infection based on symptoms alone, which is when their experience comes to the rescue, along with a combination of science.

Image Source: Getty

Read more articles on cold and flu.

Written by
Ariba Khaliq
Source: Onlymyhealth editorial teamJul 15, 2015

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