Pressmaster/ShutterstockIf you head to your doctor with a fever and cough or other signs you’re getting sick, there’s a good chance your doctor won’t know what’s behind it. It’s hard to test for certain diseases, like bacterial pneumonia,
When patients come in with respiratory viruses like the common cold and sinus infections, doctors often send them home with an antibiotic prescription. The problem is, antibiotics only target bacteria and won’t do anything to fight a virus. Still, about 30 percent of antibiotics prescriptions are for viral infections, according to the CDC. (Make sure to ask these essential questions before taking antibiotics.)
Not only is an antibiotic completely unhelpful against a virus, but it could have major consequences. Antibiotics kill most of the bacteria behind your infection—but not all of them. The bacteria that are strong enough to survive will multiply to create more bacteria that are resistant to treatment, too. Over time, this means there will be more resistant bacteria than ones that antibiotics can kill, so the infections will be harder to treat.
And if you take antibiotics when you don’t need to, or use antibacterial soap, you’re speeding that process along. Eventually, diseases that used to be easy to treat with antibiotics could become dangerous again.
Luckily, researchers might have found a way to tell the difference between bacterial and viral infections, so you won’t get a useless antibiotic. In a study in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers took blood from 94 patients who had lower respiratory tract infections. Lab tests found genetic markers in the blood that could correctly figure out if an infection was viral or bacterial 80 to 90 percent of the time. (Find out how genetic tests could help you lose weight, too.)
Because the sample size was so small, more tests will be needed before doctors can start using this diagnosis method in their offices. But if it does take off, it will be a lot easier than testing for specific diseases.
“Our genes react differently to a virus than they do to bacteria,” says study co-author Thomas Mariani, PhD, pediatrics and biomedical genetics professor at University of Rochester Medical Center, in a statement. “Rather than trying to detect the specific organism that’s making an individual sick, we’re using genetic data to help us determine what’s affecting the patient and when an antibiotic is appropriate or not.”
In the meantime, if you think you’re not feeling well, use these natural remedies for cold and flu.