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But studies show that most upper respiratory infections are viral. And antibiotics do not help viral infections. They only fight infections caused by bacteria.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that taking antibiotics when you have a virus can do more harm than good. You will still feel sick, and the antibiotic could give you a skin rash, diarrhea, a yeast infection or worse.
Antibiotics also give bacteria a chance to become more resistant to them. This can make future infections harder to treat. That means that antibiotics might not work when you really need them. Antibiotic resistance has become a serious problem.
Antibiotics are among the most frequently prescribed drugs in the U.S. The CDC estimates that at least 28 percent of prescriptions for antibiotics are unnecessary or were the wrong treatment. If your doctor prescribes an antibiotic, it’s a good idea to ask questions and make sure you really need it.
You may need an antibiotic for:
The CDC offers more information about when you may need antibiotics.
Some ways to treat minor non-bacterial illnesses include:
Parents should talk to their children’s health care provider about when and how to treat fever and cough. Please note that for children below age 6, ibuprofen, cough suppressants, decongestants or antihistamines are not recommended because there is no evidence of their effectiveness and they can cause harmful side effects.
Originally published 12/16/2019; Revised 2023
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