Treating a cold? Don't ask your doctor for an antibiotic - it won't help

January 12, 2001

Treating a cold? Don't ask your doctor for an antibiotic - it won't help

By KATE COLEMAN / Staff Writer

see also: Is it a cold or an infection?

American Academy of Family Physicians has information about colds and flu - as well as other health topics - on the Web at

For a free copy of the brochure, "The Flu and Colds," send a business-sized, self-addressed, stamped envelope to American Academy of Family Physicians, in care of Flu and Colds, P.O. Box 19326, Lenexa, Kan. 66285-9326.

About a week ago, Dr. Joseph H. Stewart III had a cold.

In a phone interview from his Waynesboro, Pa., office, the board-certified family physician said he planned to go home and get some sleep. He did not plan to take antibiotics.



"I'm holding out," he said.

Stewart knew his cold was caused by a virus. Antibiotics don't work against infections caused by viruses. They only work against infections caused by bacteria, according to American Academy of Family Physicians.

The vast majority of upper respiratory problems are caused by viruses, said otolaryngologist - ear, nose and throat specialist - Dr. Michael J. Saylor.

People have a preconception that antibiotics will cure their viral illnesses, Stewart said.

Antibiotics don't do any good against viruses, said Saylor, who practices in Hagerstown and Chambersburg, Pa. Patients sometimes come to his office, tell him they have a sinus infection and ask for antibiotics.

Stewart has had similar experiences. People have been brainwashed into thinking they need antibiotics, he said. The medical profession has overprescribed, he believes.

"You have to negotiate sometimes," he said. It takes more time to convince the patients that an antibiotic won't help than to write a prescription, he said.

It's the doctor's job to educate his patients, Stewart said. He admitted that he sometimes prescribes the requested antibiotics when patients are "very, very unhappy" with his advice. That's not the standard of treatment recommended by leaders in the medical profession, but sometimes it's the reality, Stewart said.

Physicians don't want to miss that 2 percent to 5 percent who have an infection that antibiotics can stop, Stewart said.

What's the problem in prescribing antibiotics for illnesses they won't help? "Antibiotics are abused in medicine," Saylor said.

They can cause side effects, including allergic reactions and diarrhea. Improper use of antibiotics also increases the likelihood of resistant bacteria, Saylor said.

When antibiotics are used too often or are not used correctly, resistant bacteria develop. "Resistant" bacteria are those that have grown stronger, and antibiotics won't work against them. They sometimes can be treated with more powerful medicines, but these may have to be given intravenously. A few kinds of resistant bacteria are untreatable, according to American Academy of Family Physicians.

"Patients want instant results. They don't have time to be sick," Stewart said.

Stress, a poor diet, and lack of sleep and exercise can cause people to get rundown, he said. Stewart believes the best cure for a cold is to prevent it.

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