We frequently want and expect meds from the doctor, but as many as half the antibiotics prescribed are unnecessary, says Laurie Hicks, D.O., medical director of the CDC's campaign Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work. One study found that some antibiotics actually breed resistant bacteria that stay in the body for up to two years -- making it harder to fight future infections and increasing the likelihood that drug-resistant superbugs will spread. Here, a guide for enlightened use.
Swelling, pressure, discomfort when you swallow
You May Need Antibiotics if pain worsens and fever develops. Just remember, studies show that the infection doesn't go away faster with drugs, says Alex Riccio, N.P., of the Continuum Center for Health & Healing in New York City.
Ask your M.D. about mullein garlic eardrops, which can keep the area near the eardrum clear, Riccio suggests.
Congestion, mucous, fatigue, a headache that worsens when you bend over
You May Need Antibiotics if symptoms linger for more than 10 days or get worse. Most infections will clear up without drugs.
"Use a steam tent and a neti pot several times a day when a cold lingers or congestion starts," Riccio says. "Also, 4,000 milligrams of vitamin C a day when your symptoms start can help boost immunity."
Urinary Tract Pain
Burning sensations, abdominal aches
You Will Need Antibiotics if a urinalysis shows infection, which can spread to the kidneys, Riccio says.
Investigate possible causes (related to sexual, hygienic, or dietary habits) of recurrent infections. "I've seen cranberry juice or homemade parsley tea treat or prevent mild cases," Riccio adds.
Sore throat, stuffy or runny nose, fever, cough, lingering exhaustion, achiness
You May Need Antibiotics if symptoms persist after 10 days, you get a fever (which may signal a bacterial infection), or both.
Drink more water and get proper sleep to support your immune system, Riccio says. Sore throat, often the first sign of an upper-respiratory virus, can be soothed by gargling with warm water mixed with antimicrobials such as salt or oil of oregano. Suddenly feeling fluish? Ask your doctor about an antiviral, such as Tamiflu, which reduces symptoms when taken within 48 hours of onset.
Cold symptoms, a wheezy cough, thick mucous
You May Need Antibiotics if a bacterial infection is suspected. However, acute bronchitis seems unresponsive to them, according to research published in The Lancet. It may be best to let it run its course under a doctor's supervision. (Pneumonia usually requires antibiotics. Seek care if you also have fatigue, fever, or chest pain.)
Drink water, a natural expectorant, and avoid drying decongestants, which weaken the body's ability to flush out mucous. (A plain expectorant, like Mucinex, isn't problematic.) Riccio often recommends magnesium and calcium supplements for bronchial dilation.
Text by Michelle Herrera Mulligan