Myths about antibiotics

No, they won't help with the cold or flu, and other common misconceptions

Published: June 25, 2015 06:00 AM

Myth 1. They can cure colds and the flu.

Not so. Antibiotics work against only bacterial infections, not viral ones such as colds, the flu, most sore throats, and many sinus and ear infections. Read more about when to use antibiotics, and when to skip them.

Myth 2. They have few side effects.

Almost 1 in 5 emergency-room visits for drug side effects stems from antibiotics. In children, the drugs are the leading cause of such visits. Those side effects include diarrhea, yeast infections, and in rare cases, nerve damage, torn tendons, and allergic reactions that include rashes, swelling of the face or throat, and breathing problems. And the drugs can kill off good bacteria, increasing the risk of some infections, including C. difficile. At least 250,000 people a year now develop C. diff. infections linked to antibiotic use, and 14,000 die as a result.

Read our special investigation "The Rise of Superbugs" and see our continuing coverage of America’s antibiotic crisis.

Myth 3. A ‘full course’ lasts at least a week.

Not always. A shorter course can work for some infections, such as certain urinary tract, ear, and sinus infections. So ask your doctor for the shortest course and lowest dose of antibiotics necessary to treat your infection.

Myth 4. It’s OK to take leftover medication.

Nope. First, you may not need an antibiotic at all. And if you do, the leftovers may not be the right type or dose for your infection. Taking them could allow the growth of harmful and resistant bacteria. Return unused antibiotics to the pharmacy or mix them with coffee grounds or cat litter and toss in the trash. (Read more about how to safely dispose of prescription and over-the-counter drugs.)

Myth 5. All bacterial infections require drugs.  

Mild ones sometimes clear up on their own. So ask your doctor whether you could try waiting it out. 

Myth 6. The more bacteria a drug kills, the better.

Wrong. So-called broad-spectrum drugs, such as ceftriaxone, cipro­floxacin and levofloxacin, should be reserved for hard-to-treat infections.

—Teresa Carr


Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the August 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.



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