Are Doctors Improperly Prescribing Antibiotics for Viral Infections?

Are Doctors Improperly Prescribing Antibiotics for Viral Infections?

A vast majority of people who see doctors for a sore throat or bronchitis receive antibiotics, according to research at Harvard University and published in JAMA Internal. But both illnesses are usually caused by viruses, not bacterial infections, which cannot be treated with antibiotics.

Harvard University researchers analyzed a National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey and a National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey. Both found that doctors prescribed antibiotics in 60 percent of visits for a sore throat and 73 percent of visits for acute bronchitis. The rate should be 10 percent for sore throats and zero for bronchitis. Read more about alternative treatments for sore throats

Sore throats caused by streptococcus bacteria (strep) should be treated

with antibiotics, but that only amounts to about 10 percent of sore

throats. In most cases, a sore throat should be treated with rest,

liquids, and a dehumidifier. 

"Also, people need to understand that by taking antibiotics for viral infections, they're putting something in their bodies that they don't need," said Jeffrey A. Linder, MD, MPH, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, associate physician at Brigham & Women's Hospital, Boston, and senior author of the study, reported on Science Daily. "Taking antibiotics unnecessarily exposes people to adverse drug reactions, allergies, yeast infections and nausea, with no benefit."

Visits to the Doctor

Researchers said there were 94 million visits to primary care physicians or emergency room visits between 1997 and 2010 for sore throats, and they looked specifically at 8,191 of the visits.  Additionally, there were 39 million visits to primary care physicians and emergency rooms between 1996 and 2010 for bronchitis. In all, researchers looked specifically at 3,667 visits.

"You have a viral infection for which the antibiotics are not going to help, and you're putting a chemical in your body that has a very real chance of hurting you," Linder said. Side effects of antibiotics include diarrhea, vaginitis in women, interactions with other medications and more serious reactions in a small number of people.Read more about alternatives to antibiotics

According to Science Daily, "Bronchitis is an inflammation of the lining of your bronchial tubes, which carry air to and from your lungs. Bronchitis may be either acute or chronic. Acute bronchitis usually improves within a few days without lasting effects, although you may continue to cough for weeks."

Creating Superbugs

The more antibiotics that are overprescribed, the bigger the risk of antibiotic resistant superbugs. The 2013 CDC report Antibiotic resistance threats in the United States, found that at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die each year as a result.

Image: Alex E. Proimos

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Sara Novak specializes in health and food policy writing for Discovery Health. Her work has also been featured on TreeHugger,, TLC Cooking, and Animal Planet. After graduating from the Grady School of Journalism at the University of Georgia, Sara headed up the communication efforts for a national scholarship program in Washington, D.C. Sara has also handled copy writing and public relations for a global environmental consulting firm. She loves fiddling with healthful recipes, traveling, and exploring life atop her yoga mat. Today, Sara lives in Charleston with her husband and two lovable cocker spaniels, Madison and Bella.