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Antibiotic resistance: How to fight it

Close-up of two hands, one handing a prescription paper reading "RX" to the other.

Feb. 10, 2019—Can't shake that cough? Is a pesky cold or the flu making you miserable? Then you may be tempted to ask your doctor for an antibiotic. But be aware: They're not always the answer.

Antibiotics never help against infections caused by viruses—such as colds or the flu—or runny noses, even if mucus is thick or green or yellow.

And while they fight bacteria, antibiotics also won't work against some common bacterial infections—for example, most cases of bronchitis and many sinus infections.

Most important: Overusing them is a key cause of a growing health threat: antibiotic resistance. Every year at least 23,000 people in the U.S. die because of it.

Dangerous superbugs

Antibiotic resistance occurs when harmful bacteria become immune to antibiotics designed to kill them. How does that happen?

Every time you take an antibiotic, some bacteria may be tough enough to survive it and multiply. These drug-resistant strains of bacteria may then spread to other people.

Over time, they may even share their drug-resistant traits with other bacteria. As a result, antibiotics may become less effective—or not work at all—against some disease-causing bacteria.

Slow the spread

To help slow the spread of drug-resistant bacteria, only take antibiotics when they're necessary—and take the full course, even if you start to feel better. The best approach: Ask your doctor when an antibiotic is likely to be effective, and follow their instructions exactly. But don't insist on one when it's not necessary.

It also helps to know the difference between a bad cold caused by a virus and a bacterial infection antibiotics could treat.

Cold and flu symptoms typically get better over a week. But if you have a fever and other symptoms that get worse over time, bacteria may be to blame and you should talk to your doctor about your symptoms.

If an antibiotic isn't likely to make you feel better, ask your doctor what else might help, such as rest, plenty of fluids or an over-the-counter medicine.

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