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Cough, Cold or the Flu? Know When Antibiotics Work for You

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Cough, Cold or the Flu? Know When Antibiotics Work for You

By Priya Nori, M.D. and Jaimie Mittal, M.D.

Recently, I visited my 75-year-old grandmother, who was suffering from cough and cold symptoms. She had similar symptoms last year and was prescribed a course of antibiotics by her doctor.

Ultimately, she felt better, either due to antibiotics or to time and rest, but it’s hard to know for sure which was most helpful.

This year, she experienced cough and cold symptoms again and went to her doctor expecting another antibiotic prescription for this episode. However, the doctor felt that she most likely had a viral infection and therefore didn’t need antibiotics.

Since my grandmother can be very persistent, the doctor ultimately did prescribe antibiotics again. My grandmother improved, but about three weeks later she developed severe diarrhea and was admitted to the hospital for dehydration and kidney failure.

Doctors diagnosed her with an intestinal infection due to bacteria called Clostridium difficile, a condition associated with antibiotic use. To treat this infection, my grandmother required a two-week prescription of a new antibiotic.

Today, she says she has not felt the same since her intestinal infection. In her age group, she’s lucky to have survived.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to 30 percent of antibiotics prescribed for outpatients are unnecessary.

Most of these prescriptions are for short-term respiratory illnesses, which are often caused by viruses and don’t respond to antibiotics.

Although considered miracle drugs when first discovered last century, antibiotics are not harmless.

Antibiotics are necessary and potentially lifesaving for serious bacterial infections (like pneumonia or meningitis); however, they can also cause serious consequences, as in my grandmother’s case.


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