Antibiotics Overprescribed for Sore Throats and Bronchitis

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As we gear up for the winter season we are reminded of the usual increase in cold and flu that runs through our communities, work places, and schools. Along with more sniffles and coughs come more visits to the doctor and, unfortunately, more prescriptions for antibiotics—often at the urging of the patient. But cold and flu are viruses, which are not affected by antibiotics. Antibiotics only kill bacteria.

Two major national surveys recently presented by Harvard scientists focused on this topic. They found that doctors prescribed antibiotics in 60 percent of visits for sore throats and 73 percent of visits for acute bronchitis, but the rate should actually be 10 percent for sore throats and almost zero for acute bronchitis.

“People need to understand that by taking antibiotics for viral infections, they’re putting something in their bodies that they don’t need,” said Jeffrey Linder, MD, senior author of the study. Only 10 percent of sore throats are caused by streptococcus (“strep”) bacteria. Acute bronchitis is nearly always viral, and even if it’s not, antibiotics are not needed unless pneumonia develops, said Linder. “Taking antibiotics unnecessarily exposes people to adverse drug reactions, allergies, yeast infections, and nausea, with no benefit.”

Linder said that most sore throats and cases of acute bronchitis should be treated with rest, fluids, and use of a humidifier—not a visit to a doctor. I often blog about the topic of antibiotic overuse because it’s important. Unnecessary antibiotic use is one major contributor to the development of antibiotic resistance, a condition much more threatening than the common cold. Next time you come down with a seasonal illness, know that it most likely does not require antibiotics. Wait it out first.