Get smart: know when antibiotics work

By: Patrick Conway, M.D., Director and Chief Medical Officer, CMS Center for Clinical Standards and Quality

As we enter flu season, you may seek fast relief when illness strikes, but think twice before asking your doctor for antibiotics. Did you know that if you have a cold or flu, antibiotics won’t work for you? That’s because antibiotics cure bacterial infections, not viral infections. Every time someone takes antibiotics, sensitive bacteria are killed, but resistant germs may survive to grow and multiply.

Antibiotic resistance, caused by overuse and misuse of antibiotics, is one of the world’s most pressing public health problems. These drug-resistant bacteria—which were once easily treatable—can now cause significant harm and suffering. When antibiotics fail to work, we get longer-lasting illnesses, need more doctor visits or extended hospital stays, and more expensive medications.

If you or a loved one lives in a nursing home, pay close attention to when antibiotics are prescribed. Roughly  2 out of 3 nursing home residents get at least one course of antibiotics each year, yet nearly 27,000 residents end up with antibiotic-resistant infections each year. These infections are often severe, difficult to treat, and lead to more hospitalizations and deaths among people over 65.  If you have questions, please ask your health care provider.

The CDC has marked November 12—18 as Get Smart About Antibiotics Week. You can take several steps to make certain you’re using antibiotics properly:

  • Take antibiotics only to treat a true bacterial infection. It should be for only as long as your doctor prescribed to treat the infection, to reduce your risk of getting the infection again, or to reduce the risk to those around you.
  • Always talk to your doctor before taking an antibiotic to be sure it will treat the infection you have.
  • Never take antibiotics for a viral infection, such as a cold, cough, or the flu. Antibiotics won’t cure your virus, they won’t keep those around you from getting the illness, and they won’t help you feel better. In fact, taking antibiotics when you have a virus may do you more harm than good, because you increase your risk of getting an antibiotic-resistant infection later.
  • Not sure if you have a virus, which can’t be treated by antibiotics? Get smart—read this chart!

Antibiotics won’t help you recover from the flu, but keep yourself from catching the major flu viruses in the first place by getting your flu shot! It’s free for people with Medicare, once per flu season in the fall or winter, when given by doctors or other health care providers (such as senior centers and pharmacies) that take Medicare.