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Is It Necessary to Take Antibiotics for Respiratory Infections?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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It is necessary to take antibiotics for respiratory infections when the infection is caused by bacteria, but in other cases, antibiotic medications are not helpful and can in fact create some risks for the patient. Studies on prescribing practices suggest that many physicians offer antibiotics too frequently because they believe patients expect them. Patients can help reduce the overuse of antibiotics by reporting symptoms accurately when they go to the doctor, and making sure the doctor understands that they do not expect antibiotics unless they are actually necessary.

Infections in the respiratory tract can be caused by bacteria or viruses and cause symptoms like coughing, wheezing, pain, and excess mucus production. In people who are relatively healthy, viruses are often the cause, and the body can fight off the infection in a week or so. People who are not well or who experience an infection for more than a week could have a bacterial infection, which may not resolve without treatment. Patients who notice a hot spot where irritation seems to be concentrated may have a bacterial infection, even if they are otherwise healthy. Antibiotics will only be effective against bacteria.

Patients considering treatment for respiratory infections may want to call a doctor or nurse to find out if a visit is necessary. Often, a wait-and-see approach is sufficient. If the patient does not improve in a week, or is at risk of severe infections, a doctor can ask to see the patient for evaluation. Doctors may prescribe antibiotics for respiratory infections if their patients have evidence of a bacterial infection, like persistent symptoms or a culture that tests positive for bacteria.

When patients take antibiotics for respiratory infections, it is important to take the whole course of medication. If the symptoms do not resolve, the infection may not be caused by bacteria, or the patient could have an antibiotic-resistant strain. The doctor can evaluate to determine the most effective next step in treatment. Taking antibiotics when they are not necessary can expose patients to the risk of side effects for no reason, and can also increase the presence of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Before a doctor prescribes antibiotics for respiratory infections, he or she may ask the patient about allergies and medical history to confirm that antibiotics are a good choice. Patients in treatment should call a doctor if they experience extreme difficulty breathing, a sudden onset of new symptoms, or severe side effects from the antibiotics. The doctor may take the patient off the medication and try other drugs.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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