The antibiotics often prescribed for viral infections have no effect on a patient's illness

Sick woman / CDC Study: 30 Percent of Antibiotic Prescriptions are Unnecessary
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May 11, 2016

Did your healthcare provider write you a prescription for antibiotics recently? There's a decent chance they weren't necessary.

According to a study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at least 30 percent of antibiotics prescribed in the U.S. are unnecessary. Most of these unnecessary antibiotics were prescribed for respiratory conditions that are caused by viruses.

If we harken back to elementary school biology, we remember that antibiotics are meant to treat bacteria and have no effect on viruses. To treat viral infections, we're given a vaccine to prevent future infection or an antiviral to treat current infection.

Viral respiratory conditions like common colds, viral sore throats, bronchitis, and sinus and ear infections don't respond to antibiotics, but doctors are prescribing them anyway.

The CDC says that these 47 million excess prescriptions put patients at risk for allergic reactions or deadly diarrhea, clostridium difficile.

Additionally, overuse of antibiotics leads to antibiotic resistance, which will make treating future infections more difficult.

"Antibiotics are lifesaving drugs, and if we continue down the road of inappropriate use we'll lose the most powerful tool we have to fight life-threatening infections," CDC Director Tom Frieden said in a written statement. "Losing these antibiotics would undermine our ability to treat patients with deadly infections, cancer, provide organ transplants, and save victims of burns and trauma."

The National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria (CARB) is looking to cut the number of these unnecessary prescriptions in half by 2020.

Data analysis found that of the estimated 154 million antibiotic prescriptions written in doctor's offices and emergency departments 30 percent are unnecessary and 44 percent of outpatient prescriptions are written to treat patients with acute respiratory conditions. About half of those outpatient prescriptions are considered unnecessary.

To bring these numbers down, healthcare professionals can evaluate their prescribing habits and add watchful waiting or delayed prescribing, when appropriate. Patients should also talk to their providers about when antibiotics are needed and when they are not. These conversations should include risk for infections by antibiotic resistant bacteria.

For more information about antibiotics, visit the CDC website.