Why You Shouldn't Beg Your Doctor for an Antibiotic

Antibiotic overuse creates superbugs that are resistant to treatment.
Feeling sick? Your doctor may weigh the evidence and say you don't need an antibiotic. If you insist, chances are, she'll sigh, pull out her script pad, and give you one just to get your annoying self out of her office. Physicians are busy people who don't necessarily feel like giving you a lesson in Antibiotics 101 during your three-minute visit.

"Patients will, in many cases, insist that they be given an antibiotic," says Frank Myers, the director of clinical epidemiology at Scripps Mercy Hospital, in San Diego. Some even threaten to see another doctor if they dont get the drugs.

However, there are a lot of really good reasons why you should meekly leave the doctor's office empty handed, save for the standard advice to get enough fluids and bed rest.

For one, antibiotics also kill off good bacteria in your body, which help to digest your food or maintain a healthy balance in your throat or genital tract. "You're not just killing bad bugs; you're killing good bugs," says Tom Campbell, MD, a family physician in Rochester, N.Y. When good bacteria die, it can cause diarrhea as well as yeast infections of the throat and vagina.

In recent years, there have been outbreaks of a potentially life-threatening intestinal bacterium called C. difficile, which can gain a foothold in people who are treated with antibiotics.

In addition, antibiotic overuse creates superbugs that are resistant to treatment. Take methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which was recently responsible for some highly publicized deaths in teens and children. The staph strain is resistant to antibiotics such as methicillin, oxacillin, penicillin, and amoxicillin. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that between 1999 and 2005, the number of MRSA-related hospitalizations increased 62%, from 294,570 to 477,927.

Another dangerous bacteria is penicillin-resistant Streptococcus pneumoniae, or strep pneumo, a common problem with childhood ear infections. "This is much more difficult to treat because of antibiotic resistance, and it causes a lot of illness," Myers says. "It's a big problem with kids' ear infections and can also result in meningitis in both children and adults."

The overuse of antibiotics has become so problematic that state health agencies around the world have created public-education campaigns—including advertisements on television, buses, and billboards—to warn both doctors and patients (and especially parents) about the dangers of antibiotic resistance.

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Last Updated: January 15, 2009

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