After years of advanced education and specialty training in infectious disease, people expect me to know exactly what’s wrong when they complain of a cough, fever, or sore throat, and that I know how to make them feel better. The truth is that far too often, the best I can do is flip a coin.
Given that uncertainty, why not prescribe an antibiotic just in case? Because it’s becoming very clear that while antibiotics can be life-saving, they are far from harmless. They can cause serious drug reactions. They can change the balance of your healthy bacteria. They can cause a potentially fatal antibiotic-triggered infection. Millions of Americans are hospitalized every year because of antibiotic resistant infections.
I often don’t know how to treat you because your symptoms may not be specific to a particular condition. For example, that thick, green phlegm you’ve been coughing up could be pneumonia. Or it could be a cold you picked up when your three-year-old gave you a big kiss. Or it could be that thick haze of pollen you strolled through which set off your allergies. As a doctor, sometimes it’s easy to tell the difference. But most of the time it’s not. That’s when doctors resort to testing. Unfortunately, the tests are terrible.