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When Do I Need Antibiotics?

Antibiotics are medications that destroy bacteria or slow down their growth.  You might wonder about why your medical provider prescribes antibiotics for some conditions, but not for others. 

When you might be prescribed antibiotics

If you are diagnosed with a bacterial infection, your provider may write you a prescription for antibiotics.  Bacteria are microscopic organisms that can sometimes cause the following infections:

When you probably won't be prescribed antibioticsabx_2.jpg

Viruses are small infectious agents that can't reproduce outside of the cell of a host.  They do not respond to antibiotics, so in most cases your doctor will advise you to take good care of yourself while allowing your immune system to fight off the bug. 

  • The common cold
  • The flu (influenza)
  • Most coughs
  • Some ear infections
  • Stomach flu

Why might your provider advise against antibiotics?

When people take antibiotics unnecessarily, too often, or incorrectly, bacteria can develop resistance to the treatment.  This problem has led to the development of conditions that are very difficult to treat, such as MRSA (an antibiotic-resistant skin infection) and strains of tuberculosis that only new types of antibiotics can cure.

Taking antibiotics when it's not medically necessary may also make you temporarily less healthy.  Most antibiotics kill bacteria indiscriminately--they destroy the good bacteria, like those that help your digestion, for example, as well as the bad. 

Additional resources

Are you a UW student and/or established Hall Health patient with questions about your symptoms? Contact our Consulting Nurse.

Antibiotics Do's and Don'ts. The Wall Street Journal


Authored by: Hall Health Center Health Promotion staff
Reviewed by: Hall Health Center Primary Care Clinic staff (KC), February 2014