When to Treat a Cough With Antibiotics | The Survival Doctorby James Hubbard, MD, MPH

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s the cold and flu season. In fact my last few posts have dealt with “Flu Shots: The Good and the Bad,” things you can to do if you get the flu, and “How NOT to Die From the Flu.”

But now, your cold or flu symptoms are over, except for that lingering cough. Do you need antibiotics? How long can a cough linger and just be related to getting over your virus?

Two new studies investigate these questions and give some surprising (at least to me) findings—findings that I think might help you decide for yourself, especially if you can’t get medical help and antibiotics are in short supply.

Article Contents

Is your cough from bacteria?
Antibiotics: benefits vs. harm
How long do coughs linger?
Signs you need antibiotics

Is the Lingering Cough From Bacteria?

First you should know that the majority of bronchial (lung) infections are caused by viruses. Antibiotics don’t kill viruses. And yet we doctors continue to prescribe them for most of those types of infections. Why?

Well, for one reason we’re trying to please you patients. I know that’s a kind of wimpy excuse but it’s true. Many patients get upset if they’ve gone to the trouble to come in for an office visit for a lingering cough, and all they hear is that it’s probably viral; take some over-the-counter somethings and it’ll run its course. Many see it as wasted time and money.

So, prescribing antibiotics is easier than asking you to wait, give your body a chance to fight it off, and come back if you’re not better in a week or two.

Don’t like that excuse? Okay, how about this? We’re afraid we’re going miss the few episodes of bronchitis (inflammation in the lungs that causes coughing) that are bacterial. Even from a detailed history and exam, it can be hard to tell for sure. We’re worried we might miss one, and then you have to come back in worse than ever, or even end up in the hospital—or that we might be missing an early bacterial pneumonia. You can die from that you know.

So what’s the big deal? Why not just antibiotics for all? Find out why on the next page.

>> Next: Antibiotics: benefit versus harm

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Photo by sarahluv on Flickr.