Know When You Need Antibiotics

The changing seasons may have you feeling a bit under the weather, but when is the right time for antibiotics?

William Lawrence M.D.

William Lawrence,  M.D., F.A.A.P.

When you have a sore throat or cold, antibiotics may seem like an easy fix. But for many common illnesses, they won't help - and could cause harm. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Medical Director William Lawrence, M.D., answers questions about antibiotic use.

Q: How should antibiotics be used?

A: Antibiotics are used to fight infections from bacteria, fungi and parasites. They're not suitable for bronchitis, sore throat, simple sinus infection or common cold. Those ailments are usually viral, and antibiotics don't work against viruses. However, if a sore throat is strep throat - which is caused by a type of bacteria - an antibiotic would be appropriate. Your Healthcare provider may also give you an antibiotic for a severe sinus infection.

Q: What is the danger of taking antibiotics that aren't helping?

A: Misuse of antibiotics can allow harmful bacteria to change and reproduce. These bacteria then become resistant or immune to an antibiotic. This is called antibiotic resistance. If harmful bacteria become resistant to certain antibiotics, infections may be harder to treat.

Q: What can I do about antibiotic resistance?

A: Don't take antibiotics for illnesses caused by a virus, such as colds and the flu. Never ask for antibiotics if your provider doesn't recommend them. If you do receive an antibiotic, be sure to take it as directed and take all of it. If you have leftover medicine, throw it out properly.

Q: What can I do to avoid colds, flu and other illnesses?

A: You can take these steps to prevent getting sick:

  • To maintain a strong immune system, eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly and get plenty of sleep.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water
  • Consider wearing a face mask if you are going to be close to someone who has an infectious illness
  • When you are ill, take precautions not to spread germs. Consider wearing a face mask, and cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze

Be sure to drink lots of fluids to help you recover when you're sick. Gargling with warm salt water can ease sore throats or prevent a recurrence. When prescribed an antibiotic, you may ask your doctor if a probiotic might be a safe and helpful to reduce side effects.

Your best shot at staying flu-free

Antibiotics don't help when you have the flu. That's one reason why it's important to receive a flu vaccination each year. Blue Crosss and Blue Shield Service Benefit Plan members can receive a flu shot with no out-of-pocket cost when receiving a flu shot at a Preferred retail pharmacy in our vaccine network. Check with your pharmacy or call our Retail Pharmacy Program at 1-800-624-5060 to see which vaccines your local pharmacy can provide.

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