Signs That Your Illness Needs to Be Treated With Antibiotics

While millions of prescriptions are written each year for antibiotics, an estimated one-third of those prescriptions are written unnecessarily. Antibiotics are an aggressive but effective form of treatment against many ailments, but they cannot cure every common disease. In fact, taking antibiotics when they are not necessary is one of the main ways to make yourself resistant to them, which could make it harder for you to treat a disease in the future. It is, therefore, extremely important that you only take antibiotics when you actually need to take them. The key to recognizing when you need to take antibiotics for your illness and when you do not is to identify whether your illness is caused in any way by a bacterial infection. Antibiotics are not an effective treatment against viral infections. Likewise, if your condition does not involve any infection at all, it does not need to be treated with antibiotics.

The following sections cover the signs and symptoms of bacterial infections and common conditions associated with them. This should help you identify when your illness needs to be treated with antibiotics and when it does not. For additional certainty, these distinctions are followed by a brief list of certain common conditions that are associated with the symptoms. Ultimately, however, only a physician can determine whether your illness is viral or bacterial in nature. Antibiotics should only ever be prescribed by a licensed physician. When antibiotics are not needed to treat your illness, ask your physician what treatment options are best.

When You Should Take Antibiotics

Since antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections, they should only be prescribed if you are showing signs and symptoms of this type of infection. Physicians use many clues to identify whether an infection in a patient is bacterial. The following are signs that your infection is bacterial and needs to be treated with antibiotics:

  • It involves a single body cavity. Viruses spread all over as much of the body as they can, but bacteria like to settle in one place.
  • You have a high fever. Both viral and bacterial infections can cause a fever, but fevers caused by viruses tend to be lower than those caused by bacteria, and generally only last for the infection’s first few days. An exception to this rule is influenza, a viral infection that can cause high fevers from 101 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Fevers caused by bacterial infections, in addition to being higher, also tend to last for as long as the infection lingers.
  • You have the shakes or chills. These are not definitive indicators of a bacterial infection, since certain viral infections like the flu can also cause these symptoms. However, shakes or chills, in combination with other symptoms, can help a doctor determine whether your illness is bacterial in nature.
  • White spots on a sore throat. Both viruses and bacteria can cause sore throats, but sore throats caused by viruses do not tend to produce white spots on the throat. If those are observed, they were probably caused by bacteria.
  • It does not go away by itself. Viral infections tend to go away on their own in time. Bacterial infections will linger for as long as the body fails to eradicate them. If you are able to get out of bed after the first few days of your illness, it was probably viral. If you only seem to keep getting sicker and sicker, your illness is probably bacterial and requires antibiotics. Strep throat is a noteworthy exception to this rule, often presenting itself as a mild viral form of pharyngitis. It is also worth noting that a viral infection that lasts for a long time could eventually take on a bacterial component. The longer you have been sick, therefore, the more likely it is that an antibiotic should be prescribed.

Common conditions associated with a bacterial infection that need to be treated with antibiotics include:

  • Strep throat.
  • Urinary tract infection.
  • Whooping cough.

When You May Need Antibiotics

Some conditions, like a middle ear infection or a sinus infection, may be caused by either a viral or bacterial infection. These, therefore, may or may not improve from treatment with antibiotics. Both bacterial and viral upper respiratory infections can trigger the production of colored mucus. Despite popular myth, there is no reliable differentiation in the color or consistency of mucus caused by one or the other. Thin and clear mucus may be more often viral than bacterial, but yellow or green mucus can be caused by either type of infection.

Bacteria and viruses also frequently mimic one another. Influenza is an example of a viral infection that highly resembles a bacterial infection, while mycoplasma is a bacterial infection that presents just like a viral infection. This is why it is important to have a doctor determine the true nature and source of your illness and whether or not you need to take antibiotics to treat it.

When You Do Not Need Antibiotics

When an otherwise healthy adult or child experiences a chest cold or bronchitis, antibiotics are not a suitable form of treatment. Even in cases of acute bronchitis caused by bacteria, antibiotics are not considered effective. Antibiotics are not the solution, either, for any type of sore throat that is not strep throat. Furthermore, antibiotics are not indicated in any of the following conditions: