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Antibiotics Can Be Harsh Medicine

Nearly 80 percent of complications were allergic reactions, ranging from rashes and swelling to respiratory distress.

Complications from the use of antibiotics result in some 142,000 trips to American emergency rooms each year. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a study of surveillance data from 2004 to 2006, found that nearly 80 percent of adverse events were allergic reactions, ranging from rashes and swelling to respiratory distress. In 6 percent of cases, the patient had to be hospitalized.

Although public health agencies have long stressed that overuse of antibiotics encourages the development of drug-resistant bugs, the CDC report, published Sept. 15 in Clinical Infectious Diseases, is one of the first to emphasize personal risks.

Each year doctors write 100 million antibiotic prescriptions for respiratory infections, more than half of which may be unnecessary, since most of these infections are viral and don’t respond to antibiotics. Often, patients insist on an antibiotic for their sore throat or cough, says Harris A. Berman, M.D., dean of the public health program at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston.

“Antibiotics are clearly wonder drugs that save lives,” Berman says. “But they carry some danger and should only be used when necessary. The take-home message is, people shouldn’t ask for an antibiotic unless their doctors really think they need it.”

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