Winter is finally over but coughs and colds are still common this time of year. Fighting these illnesses is never easy, but it is important not to cause more harm by taking unnecessary antibiotics.

Viruses cause the vast majority of sore throats and acute upper respiratory illnesses. These conditions typically last less than a week and are best treated with rest, fluids and over-the-counter medications for the acute symptoms. Antibiotics are effective when needed but only treat bacterial infections, not viral coughs and colds or the flu.

Prevention is important. Get a flu shot each fall and employ frequent hand washing during flu season. Taking inappropriate antibiotics for a viral illness “just in case” can cause unwanted side effects and may contribute to increased problems with drug resistant infections.

Talk to your physician when you have severe symptoms or when symptoms persist despite supportive measures. Your physician can determine if antibiotic treatment is in your best interest. Learn more at this website: http://www.cdc.gov/features/getsmart/

Michael Atwood, M.D., CHIE, is the vice president of medical affairs and chief medical officer at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas. He is a board certified family physician and an American Academy of Family Physicians fellow.

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