You've heard this before, but it bears repeating in the flu season: One hundred fifty million courses of antibiotics are prescribed for outpatients in the United States every year, and as many as half are unnecessary. This has resulted in an explosion in the number of bacteria that have become resistant to various drugs.
Most of the illnesses that "go around" during the winter -- including flu -- are viral, and an antibiotic won't cure them. A doctor has the best chance of determining what is causing your illness, but here are guidelines:
Most upper-respiratory problems are caused by viruses. Sinusitis and bronchitis are often viral, too. According to Dr. Mitchell Cohen of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, if a condition lasts more than 10 days, it may be a bacterial infection and should be checked by a doctor.
Common bacterial infections include meningitis, pneumonia, strep throat, tuberculosis and salmonella. Ear, urinary tract, sinus and airway infections are sometimes -- but not always -- caused by bacteria.
How to avoid drug-resistant infection:
1. Don't request an antibiotic. If your doctor says you don't need one, chances are that you don't.
2. Ask your doctor whether your immune system eventually can wipe out the infection on its own, or whether it's important to take an antibiotic.
3. If you think you have strep throat, have a throat culture taken before taking antibiotics.
4. Finish your course of antibiotics. Stopping your medication early allows the hardiest bacteria to survive and reproduce. Eventually, you may develop an infection resistant to many antibiotics.
5. Follow directions. Not taking antibiotics as prescribed or skipping doses can lead to a temporary setback in your treatment and encourage development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
6. Don't take leftovers. Some people save unfinished antibiotics for later use or they borrow a leftover drug from a family member or friend. Your illness may not be a bacterial infection and, even if it is, the leftover antibiotic may not be the right type. In addition, old antibiotics can lose their effectiveness and, in some cases, even be fatal.
7. Don't take antibiotics to prevent illness. This only increases your risk of developing resistant infections. (Exceptions include taking antibiotics before certain surgeries and taking antibiotics before dental work if you have a heart-valve disorder.)
8. Get vaccinated for pneumonia, especially if you're 65 or older.
9. Wash your hands. Frequent hand-washing is the single most important thing you can do to prevent infections.
10. Exercise, eat right and get plenty of sleep. They all help bolster your body's immune system so you can fight off infections.
Source: Mayo Clinic Health Oasis