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Antibiotics can’t fight viral infections, yet they’re commonly prescribed as a panacea for colds, flus, and most sore throats. This practice continues despite research that has linked their overuse to the rise of antibiotic resistance and life-threatening superbugs. 

A recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine uncovers “an underrecognized source of inappropriate antibiotic prescribing”: urgent-care and retail clinics.

Doctors at these popular businesses prescribed antibiotics at a rate two to three times higher than traditional clinics or ERs for all conditions. Researchers also found that 54 percent of urgent-care visits involved upper-respiratory-tract conditions.

“Patients may seek care in one of these clinics specifically because they desire antibiotics,” the authors of the accompanying JAMA editorial note, “and clinicians may worry that patients will not return to urgent care in the future if their expectations are not met.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls improving antibiotic prescribing and use “a national priority” to combat antibiotic resistance and to ensure “that these life-saving drugs will be available for future generations.” Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria evolve to overcome drugs designed to kill them.

Antibiotics are effective for battling bacterial infections, but it’s important to be certain that an infection is in fact bacterial and not viral before taking the medication. A urine or blood test may be used to diagnose the root of a cough, sore throat, or fever and to confirm whether antibiotics are warranted. (For tips on responsible antibiotic use, see “Get Smart About Antibiotics.”) 

To stave off or combat colds and the flu, the best prescription calls for plenty of rest, fluids, and nutritious whole foods.

30: Percentage of all U.S. antibiotic prescriptions that are unnecessary or ineffectual, according to the CDC. This amounts to 47 million prescriptions annually.

2,000,000: Number of Americans who get sick each year from bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, according to the CDC. Of this number, at least 23,000 die as a direct result of such infections, and more die from complications. 

This originally appeared as “The Non-Cure for the Common Cold” in the January-February 2019 print issue of Experience Life.

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