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I've heard both ways; people going to the doctor for a cold and then getting a prescription for antibiotics and those that go to the doctor and told they have ride it out because it's a viral infection. Do antibiotics really help in true cases of a viral cold?

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I have been told that in some cases patients will refuse to leave without some kind of prescription and rather unethically some doctors go along with it for a quiet life. – Rory M Sep 26 '12 at 20:07
No, they don't. I'll return to this question if I have time with a full answer, but the largest reason people receive antibiotics if they have a viral infection is because they expect the doctor to give them antibiotics and will pester the physician about it. Sometimes the "prescriptions" are placebos to simply give the patients something, but physicians are well aware that antibiotics rarely do anything for viral infections. – MCM Sep 26 '12 at 20:07
And a recent german govt report states 50 per cent of AB prescriptions are inadequate. – rwst Sep 27 '12 at 15:39
@MCM Better cite sources for that since I know doctors who do prescribe antibiotics for the reason outlined in Bitwise’s answer. Can’t say I’m a fan of this wasteful use of antibiotics but there you go. – Konrad Rudolph Sep 30 '12 at 10:56
@KonradRudolph - So do I. I didn't say it was the only reason, nor practiced by all Doctors. But the reason I stated was the most common while I volunteered in my local E.D. – MCM Sep 30 '12 at 13:54

2 Answers 2

up vote 8 down vote accepted

In general antibiotics don't help with viruses. However, sometimes a bacterial infection may follow a cold virus, so there might be some scenarios in which antibiotics would be needed. However in many cases it could be due to people demanding antibiotics from their doctor.

You can read more here (CDC site):

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Antibiotics kill bacteria, not virus! So it's just plain wrong. If a bacterial infection appears after the cold, then the antibiotics should be prescribed because of the bacterial infection, not because of the cold. There is a serious concern about misuse of antibiotics promoting hyper-resistant bacteria through natural selection, but doctors keep ignoring alerts from WHO and prescribing antibiotics without even knowing the bacterial strain. It's absurd that a doctor should prescribe an antibiotic just because "the patient needs to get some medicine to be happy". In this case he/she should prescribe a placebo, not a real antibiotic (and there's still the point that killing most bacteria in our body destroy one of our defensive lines against pathogens). Confirming this point, according to American Medical Association, medical error is the third death cause in USA. So in many cases, yes, it might just be a medical error.

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Now for those that think this is not an answer, explain me why? – Rodrigo May 31 '14 at 1:55
"7000 deaths/year from medication errors in hospitals" – Rodrigo May 31 '14 at 2:01
You're general sentiment is correct. However, it does not address the reality of how doctors end up prescribing the antibiotics in any case. The main reasons come down to: viral and bacterial infections may look similar in early stages and so it is prophylactic; patients can be "demanding" and get a prescription before leaving the office; and some doctors may use poor judgement. Prescribing a placebo is unethical when the potential for harm can be real (what if a patient is immunocompromised?). Lastly, the 7000 deaths/year is not specific to antibiotics and is an irrelevant statistic to cite. – leonardo Jun 1 '14 at 2:07
WHO alerts about misuse of antibiotics are not irrelevant. If a doctor don't know if an infection is viral or bacterial, how can a medicine be prescripted? And medical error as a "third cause of death" is irrelevant, in your opinion, really? – Rodrigo Jun 1 '14 at 2:39
You're missing the point, and clearly you have some agenda to make. I agreed that doctors can mis-prescribe, or even err on the side of caution to prescribe, antibiotics. It takes a long time to assess whether common infections are bacterial or viral because they have to wait for strains to grow or viruses to be immunoassayed. You seem to be taking a lot of "facts" completely out of context. For instance, 7000 deaths/year, where? The USA? So that is 0.002% of the population, or several of orders of magnitude smaller consider the number of hospital visits. – leonardo Jun 1 '14 at 18:05

protected by Chris Jul 15 at 20:21

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