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When you have a pesky sore throat or a lingering cold, you may look for a quick fix. Antibiotics may seem like a good choice.

But for many such common illnesses, they won’t help. That’s according to the latest guidelines on their proper use.

When to take them

Antibiotics were first discovered in 1928. They are now some of the strongest medicines in the world. They are also some of the most misused. In fact, despite the overall drop in their use in the U.S., many adults still take them when they won’t do any good.

As a result, experts recently reassessed when these medicines should be used. They looked at the latest research and determined these medicines are a staple against health problems like bacterial infections. But they’re not suitable for four of the most prevalent illnesses: bronchitis, sore throat, a simple sinus infection, and the common cold.

Why should you skip the antibiotics if you have one of these illnesses? Such ailments are often caused by a virus. Antibiotics don’t work against viruses. Rather, they are best in fighting infections from bacteria, fungus, and parasites.

In certain cases, though, antibiotics may be warranted for some of these illnesses. Sometimes a sore threat may actually be strep throat. It’s a condition caused by a type of bacteria called Streptococcal A. Your healthcare provider may also give you an prescription for a severe sinus infection. That’s one that worsens or doesn’t go away within a few weeks.

Why the concern

It may seem like taking an antibiotic wouldn’t be a bad thing. But misuse can allow harmful bacteria to change and reproduce. These bacteria then become resistant or immune to an antibiotic. This is called antibiotic resistance, which is a growing concern worldwide. Bacteria can spread from person to person. Some of these bacteria don’t cause any problems. They may even be helpful. But if you become infected with harmful bacteria, you may become sick. If those bacteria are resistant to certain antibiotics, your infection may be harder to treat, and the medication may simply not work.

You can do your part to help stop antibiotic resistance. Here’s how:

  • Don’t take them for illnesses caused by a virus. That includes colds, most sore throats and coughs, and the flu. Your healthcare provider can tell you how best to treat these ailments.
  • Never ask for antibiotics if your healthcare provider doesn’t recommend them.
  • If your healthcare provider does give you a prescribed medicine, be sure to take all of it, and take it as directed. Not doing so can allow some of the bacteria to live and reproduce. That raises the chance for the bacteria to form some resistance.
  • Don’t take an antibiotic that hasn’t been prescribed for you.
  • If you have leftover medicine, always throw it out properly. Ask your healthcare provider for the best way to do so.

Test your knowledge of antibiotics with this interactive quiz.