West Valley Medical Center Close Window
Library Search Go Advanced Search
Español (Inicio)

HealthSheets™

When to Use Antibiotics 

Antibiotics are medicines used to treat infections caused by bacteria. They don’t work for illnesses caused by viruses or an allergic reaction. In fact, taking antibiotics for reasons other than a bacterial infection can cause problems. For example, you may have side effects from the medicine. And if you really need an antibiotic, it may not work well.                                                                                                                                            

When antibiotics won’t help

Your healthcare provider won’t usually prescribe antibiotics for the following conditions. You can help by not asking for them if you have: 

  • A cold. This type of illness is caused by a virus. It can cause a runny nose, stuffed-up nose, sneezing, coughing, headache, mild body aches, and low fever. A cold gets better on its own in a few days to a week.

  • The flu (influenza). This is a respiratory illness caused by a virus. The flu usually goes away on its own in a week or so. It can cause fever, body aches, sore throat, and fatigue.

  • Bronchitis. This is an infection in the lungs most often caused by a virus. You may have coughing, phlegm, body aches, and a low fever. A common type of bronchitis is known as a chest cold (acute bronchitis). This often happens after you have a respiratory infection like a common cold. Bronchitis can take weeks to go away, but antibiotics usually don’t help.

  • Most sore throats. Sore throats are most often caused by viruses. Your throat may feel scratchy or achy, and it may hurt to swallow. You may also have a low fever and body aches. A sore throat usually gets better in a few days.

  • Most ear infections. An ear infection may be caused by a virus or bacteria. It causes pain in the ear. Antibiotics usually don’t help, and the infection goes away on its own.

  • Most sinus infections (sinusitis). This kind of infection causes sinus pain and swelling, and a runny nose. In most cases, sinusitis goes away on its own, and antibiotics don’t make recovery quicker.

  • Allergic rhinitis. This is a set of symptoms caused by an allergic reaction. You may have sneezing, a runny nose, itchy or watery eyes, or a sore throat. Allergies are not treated with antibiotics.

  • Low fever. A mild fever that’s less than 100.4°F (38°C) most likely doesn’t need treatment with antibiotics. 

When antibiotics can help 

Antibiotics can be used to treat:                                                   

  • Strep throat. This is a throat infectioncaused by a certain type of bacteria. Symptoms of strep throat include a sore throat, white patches on the tonsils, red spots on the roof of the mouth, fever, body aches, and nausea and vomiting.

  • Urinary tract infection (UTI). This is a bacterial infection of the bladder and the tube that takes urine out of the body. It can cause burning pain and urine that’s cloudy or tinted with blood. UTIs are very common. Antibiotics usually help treat these infections.

  • Some ear infections. In some cases, a healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotics for an ear infection. You may need a test to show what’s causing the ear infection.

  • Some sinus infections. In some cases, yourhealthcare provider may give you antibiotics. He or she may first need to make sure your symptoms aren’t caused by a virus, fungus, allergies, or air pollutants such as smoke. 

Your doctor may also recommend antibiotics if you have a condition that can affect your immune system, such as diabetes or cancer. 

Self-care at home 

If your infection can’t be treated with antibiotics, you can take other steps to feel better. Try the remedies below. In general: 

  • Rest and sleep as much as needed.

  • Drink water and other clear fluids.

  • Don’t smoke, and avoid smoke from other people.

  • Use over-the-counter medicine such as acetaminophen to ease pain or fever, as directed by your healthcare provider. 

To treat sinus pain or nasal congestion: 

  • Put a warm, moist washcloth on your face where you feel sinus pain or pressure.

  • Use a nasal spray with medicine or saline, as directed by your healthcare provider.

  • Breathe in steam from a hot shower.

  • Use a humidifier or cool mist vaporizer. 

To quiet a cough: 

  • Use a humidifier or cool mist vaporizer.

  • Breathe in steam from a hot shower.

  • Use cough lozenges. 

To sooth a sore throat: 

  • Suck on ice chips, popsicles, or lozenges.

  • Use a sore throat spray.

  • Use a humidifier or cool mist vaporizer.

  • Gargle with saltwater.

  • Drink warm liquids. 

To ease ear pain: 

  • Hold a warm, moist washcloth on the ear for 10 minutes at a time.

© 2000-2017 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.