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When Are Antibiotics Needed?

Published on April 3, 2020

As you may have guessed, bacteria cause bacterial infections, and viruses cause viral infections. However, one important difference between infections caused by bacteria and viruses is that antibiotics can kill bacteria, but they cannot kill viruses.

“Antibiotics do not work for viral infections. Antibiotics are primarily for bacterial infections,” says Cory Offutt, MD, a family medicine doctor with the Phelps Health Medical Group. “There are very few viruses that can be treated with antiviral medications.”

Certain conditions like strep throat and urinary tract infections, which are caused by bacteria, can be treated with antibiotics. Antibiotics will not help with diseases caused by viruses, such as common colds, chicken pox and influenza.

Certain health issues, like sinus infections, middle ear infections, pneumonia and meningitis, can be caused by either bacteria or viruses. Antibiotics may be needed in these cases, if bacteria is the cause.

“Bronchitis is one illness for which antibiotics are overprescribed,” says Dr. Offutt. “A large majority of bronchitis cases are viral, and even the ones that are bacterial, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends against the use of antibiotics.”

If your healthcare provider does not prescribe an antibiotic drug for your condition, a virus may be to blame. Talk with your doctor about ways you can relieve your symptoms and feel better without antibiotics.

Dr. Offutt talks more about antibiotics and the difference between viral and bacterial infections on the Phelps Health Podcast page. Click here to learn more.