In an effort to do the right thing for a sick child or someone else you are close to or for yourself, you may seek treatment with antibiotics. In many cases, however, that is the wrong thing to do. Antibiotics cannot relieve many illnesses, and, worse yet, taking them when unnecessary can actually jeopardize the future health of the person taking them—and the health of others.

Illnesses that cannot be cured with antibiotics include most common colds or cases of the flu, coughs and bronchitis, runny noses and sore throats not caused by strep. Furthermore, antibiotics will not help the sick person feel better or keep others from becoming sick. The reason is those illnesses are caused by viruses; antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses.

The Medical Society of the State of New York (MSSNY) advises that taking antibiotics for these illnesses may actually do more harm than good, because unnecessary use of antibiotics increases your risk of later developing an infection that resists treatment with antibiotics. Your doctor knows this. So if your doctor says antibiotics are not needed, do not insist on having them prescribed.

The threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria

MSSNY has been campaigning against over-prescribing antibiotics for years because antibiotic resistance is a major public health concern. In cases where illnesses fail to respond to the usual antibiotic medicine, stronger medications may have to be administered. These medications can be more costly and require extended hospital stays. Some resistant infections can cause death.

Sick individuals are not the only ones who can suffer the consequences of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, notes the MSSNY and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Families and entire communities can feel the impact when disease-causing germs become resistant to antibiotics. These antibiotic-resistant bacteria can quickly spread to family members, classmates and co-workers, threatening the community with a new strain of infectious disease that is more difficult to cure and more expensive to treat.

A study reported last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that increasing cumulative days of antibiotic use among women was associated with increased risk of breast cancer. While researchers cautioned that more studies are needed to determine if the antibiotic actually caused breast cancer, the findings do support the continued need for prudent restraint when considering long-term use of antibiotics.

The best way to avoid misusing antibiotics is to talk to your doctor before using any antibiotic medicine and to carefully follow instructions if an antibiotic is prescribed. Take the antibiotic exactly as your doctor instructs and complete the prescribed course of treatment, even if you’re feeling better. Stopping too soon may allow some bacteria to survive and reinfect you.

Some ‘nevers’ to remember

  • To help protect against the life-threatening danger of antibiotic resistance:
  • Never take an antibiotic medicine to combat an illness caused by a virus, such as a cold or the flu.
  • Never take an antibiotic or other medicine prescribed for someone else.
  • Never insist that an antibiotic be prescribed when the doctor indicates that it is not needed.
  • Never skip doses or fail to complete the prescribed course of treatment.

An ‘always do’ checklist

  • If your doctor has prescribed an antibiotic:
  • Always take the medicine exactly as prescribed and for the entire period of time indicated, even if you’re feeling better sooner than expected.
  • Always oversee children who are taking antibiotics to make sure the medication is taken exactly as prescribed.
  • Always dispose of any unused antibiotics when the prescription is completed.
  • Remember, too, that the spread of viral infections can be reduced through frequent hand washing and by avoiding close contact with others. For additional information, visit