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Coughs Fool Patients into Unnecessary Requests for Antibiotics

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No one wants a hacking cough for days or weeks on end. But research shows that it generally takes about 18 days to get over a standard cough-based illness. Most of us grow impatient after a week or so and head to the doctor to get a prescription. The problem with that recourse, however, is that antibiotics are usually useless against typical respiratory infections that cause coughs.

A new analysis shows that even though antibiotics might be ineffective against a lingering cough, the timing of their prescription might be fooling people into thinking that the medication worked. This pattern might increase the frequency of these unnecessary prescriptions, a hazardous practice that can increase drug resistance across many bacteria strains. The findings were published online January 14 in Annals of Family Medicine.

A cough is one of the most common reasons patients go to the doctor. One quick fix, patients might assume, is a round of antibiotics. Not exactly, according to a randomized trial described last month in The Lancet Infectious Diseases. The trial showed little difference in the duration of lower-respiratory infections in people who got antibiotics and those who received placebos. Why? Like the full-blown flu, coughs are usually triggered by viruses—not bacteria—and thus are unaffected by antibiotics. Most often coughs and associated infections get better on their own. This happy outcome, however, can cause some confusion about the efficacy of antibiotics for treating cough-based sicknesses.
 
 

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