You have a sore throat. You feel achy and miserable. And you have a to-do list as long as a supermodel’s legs.

So naturally, you head to your doctor and ask for an antibiotic to knock it out fast. (OK, maybe you demand an antibiotic. But that to-do list is looming.)

In the age of high-speed everything, we want to feel better ASAP. So demanding/asking for antibiotics to cover all the bases for a fast recovery can’t hurt, right?

Hand of doctors holding many different pills

Asking for antibiotics “just in case” can actually harm your health. With over 2 million people infected yearly with bacteria resistant to antibiotics, the CDC is sounding the alarm on over prescription. 

“If you have a runny nose, sore throat and you feel bad, that is what we call a classic influenza-like illness. That is a virus 99.9 percent of the time that is causing those symptoms. Antibiotics will not help get you better,” says Shaefer Spires, M.D., the Williamson Medical Center Epidemiologist and Physician Chair of Antimicrobial Stewardship.

Would you take high blood pressure medicine even if you don’t have high blood pressure? According to Spires, that is the simplest way to explain what happens when antibiotics are prescribed in the wrong instance.

“Viruses aren’t affected by antibiotics at all,” Spires says.

But try telling that to  a worried parent.

“If you ask a physician on paper whether or not antibiotics can help something like the flu, they will always say no. But it’s a different scenario when they are staring into the eyes of a worried parent with a sick child. If the parent asks for an antibiotic “just in case” many times a physician will cave and prescribe it against their better judgment. So it’s important to educate the parents to know the risks from and giving antibiotics to their children unnecessarily,” Spires says. 

S. Shaefer Spires, M.D. Infectious Disease Vanderbilt University Medical Center photo: Anne Rayner; Vanderbilt

S. Shaefer Spires, M.D. Infectious Disease with  Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Image, Anne Rayner; Vanderbilt

One of the risks of  over-prescribing antibiotics? The overuse of antibiotics has led to ‘superbugs,’ and now bacterial resistance is on the rise Every year, at least 2 million people in the U.S. become infected with some sort of bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics, and at least 23,000 people die from these infections, according to the CDC.

“When you take antibiotics, they kill all the bacteria in your system. The good and the bad bacteria. So it disrupts your body’s natural balance. This can open the door to severe diarrhea and even a Clostridium difficile infection, which can cause severe dehydration and can even be fatal,”  Spires explains. 

If you have to ask your physician to prescribe an antibiotic “just in case” you should be warned that if your problem is viral in nature and, according to Spires, there will be no upside to taking it.

“Of all the cold medicines in the world, none of them actually help you get better from an upper respiratory infection faster. The key is to stay hydrated, get adequate rest, and to understand that your physician may not prescribe an antibiotic, which wouldn’t help you anyway,” Spires says. 

Just how serious is the overprescription problem? This year the CDC has initiated Get Smart About Antibiotics, a campaign focused on improving antibiotic prescribing practices and bringing public awareness to this issue.

If your doctor says you don’t need an antibiotic, listen up. Your to-do list will still be waiting when your viral infection ends. Demanding drugs that you don’t need won’t help you. And could actually harm your health.

More information about antibiotic misuse and overuse can be found on the CDC web site at http://www.cdc.gov/getsmart.

Shaefer Spires, M.D., is an assistant professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and is the hospital epidemiologist and Physician Chair of Antimicrobial Stewardship at Williamson Medical Center.