A study published July 16 shows that urgent care centers are the biggest offenders when it comes to prescribing unnecessary antibiotics. 
Patients who visit these centers for a common cold or a respiratory illness are often prescribed antibiotics, even though the medications don’t work for those conditions.
The study found that, overall, visits to urgent care centers resulted in a prescription for antibiotics 39% of the time. When individuals were presented with conditions that can’t be treated with antibiotics, such as the flu and bronchitis, 46% of them received a prescription for an antibiotic anyway.
Dr. Katherine Fleming-Dutra, deputy director of the Office of Antibiotic Stewardship at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said:
“Taking an antibiotic when it is not needed provides no benefit and could be harmful.”
Fleming-Dutra is right; taking an antibiotic unnecessarily could be harmful, not only to an individual patient but to society – and the world – as a whole.
The main concern is that unnecessary antibiotics can lead to drug-resistant superbugs – bacteria that have evolved in such a way that they are no longer susceptible to antibiotics, thus becoming difficult or impossible to treat. The 2 main drivers of antibiotic resistance are factory farming, where antibiotics are given to animals to prevent disease or to plump them up, and antibiotic overuse in humans.
Experts have warned that antibiotic resistance may kill more people than cancer by the year 2050, and if the crisis gets bad enough, it could spell the end of modern medicine.
Unnecessary antibiotic use also places patients at risk for allergic reactions, diarrhea, and a dangerous imbalance of gut microbes that can cause infections in the future.
“Antibiotics are life-saving medicines that treat infections caused by bacteria. When a patient needs antibiotics, the benefits outweigh the risks of side effects or antibiotic resistance.”
But antibiotics do nothing to treat viruses, and in the cases of some milder bacterial infections, they may not be necessary, said Fleming-Dutra.
Too Many Drugs, Too Often
For the study, researchers from the CDC and the Pew Charitable Trust analyzed insurance claims from a 2014 database of more than 156 million patient visits to urgent care centers, retail clinics, hospital emergency departments, and medical offices. 
The team focused on respiratory conditions that antibiotics can’t touch, including colds, bronchitis, asthma, allergies, influenza, and viral pneumonia.
- Urgent care centers prescribed antibiotics in 46% of these cases.
- Traditional medical offices prescribed antibiotics just 17% of the time.
- Emergency rooms handed out scripts in 24% of cases.
- A mere 14% of retail clinics prescribed antibiotics.  
Those are frightening facts, considering the number of urgent care centers has skyrocketed in recent years – up 12% since 2016, according to the Urgent Care Association.
When to go, When to Stay Home
Fleming-Dutra has some tips that may be useful for avoiding unnecessary antibiotics that may make things worse, rather than better, in the long run. 
- Ask your healthcare provider if antibiotics are truly necessary, and express concerns about antibiotic resistance.
- Don’t pressure your provider to prescribe antibiotics “just in case.” Also, never save antibiotics for future use. Different antibiotics treat different types of bacteria, and unless you’re a physician, you don’t know what type of antibiotics you need, how much, or for how long you should take them.
- An offense is the best defense, so avoid getting sick by washing your hands, and covering your mouth when you cough.
- Always take antibiotics as directed. Never share them with anyone else, and never stop taking them before you’ve finished the full course.
The study is published in JAMA Internal Medicine.
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