Why you shouldn't ask your doctor for antibiotics

Consumer Reports joins with doctors and hospitals to stop misuse of the drugs

Published: June 18, 2015 12:30 PM

Did you ever ask your doctor for antibiotics to treat a cold? Or the flu? Or what about your child’s painful ear? And did your doctor ever say “Sure! Here you go!” Well, you probably shouldn’t have asked—and your doctor almost certainly should have said no. 

Why? Because viruses usually cause those infections, not bacteria—and antibiotics don’t work against viruses.

And using antibiotics when you don’t need them is not only a waste of money, but can cause side effects including everything from diarrhea to nausea, vomiting, and serious allergic reactions. Even worse, the unnecessary use of antibiotics can breed bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, making the drugs less effective when you really do need them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that up to half of all the antibiotics used in this country are prescribed for the wrong reasons. 

To help combat this problem, Consumer Reports is partnering with the ABIM Foundation (with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation) to work with seven health care groups across the country to get doctors to cut their inappropriate prescribing of antibiotics for upper respiratory infections–like the common cold and the flu—by at least 20 percent over the next three years. Each of the seven groups includes representatives from organizations such as hospitals, clinics, employers, community groups, and medical societies, like the California chapter of the American College of Physicians.

One of the groups, based in Wisconsin, plans to launch a public awareness campaign with TV, radio, and newspaper ads to let people know about overuse of antibiotics–and what alternatives there are for people with runny nose and other symptoms from the common cold.

Other groups, based in both the East and West coasts, will work with health care providers so that when a doctor and patient discuss antibiotics, the doctor can print out information from Consumer Reports explaining why antibiotics won’t work for their infection – and what to do instead.

The groups will also work on reducing other examples of medical overuse that can lead to harm, including MRIs for new low-back pain with no other major symptoms, and benzodiazepines such as Valium and Xanax, drugs frequently used to combat anxiety and insomnia in older adults.

—Beccah Rotthschild


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