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Antibiotics for the Flu?

When can antibiotics help, and when do they hurt?
By
WebMD Feature

Ask any doctor if you should take antibiotics for the flu, and you’ll get a weary shake of the head and a resounding no. “Viral infections like the flu aren’t affected by antibiotics,” says William Schaffner, MD, chairman of the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University’s School of Medicine in Nashville. “You might as well take a placebo.”

Instead, antiviral medication can be used to treat the viral infections like the flu. But that is a different type of medicine than antibiotics.

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Even so, it’s not quite as cut and dried as it might seem. People can get bacterial complications from the flu. And these can be quite serious -- even life-threatening -- unless treated with antibiotics. The flu and its complications hospitalize about 200,000 people a year in the U.S. and kill about 36,000. Secondary bacterial complications are the main culprits.

So how’s a person to know whether he or she just has the flu virus, or something worse that needs treatment? WebMD turned to the experts to find out.

Who Needs Antibiotics for Flu Complications?

When you have the flu, your body’s immune system may be weakened. The lungs become irritated and inflamed. Both make is easier for bacteria to invade your body. What kind of bacterial complications can develop?

The most worrying, and most common, is pneumonia. “Bacterial pneumonia is the most likely cause of death in older people with the flu,” says Christine Hay, MD, assistant professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center. “It can be a serious problem for young children with the flu as well.”

Who’s most at risk? The odds that you’ll end up with a bacterial complication depend on several factors. If you’re a healthy young adult, the chances are low. But the flu and its complications are considered high risk for people who:

If you fit any of these categories, you need to be especially aware of the signs of a secondary bacterial infection. And, of course, you need to get the flu vaccine unless your doctor tells you otherwise.

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