Antibiotics—Even Free Ones—Won't Cure Most Winter Ills

Wegmans stores are offering free antibiotics. But the medicines can contribute to drug resistance.

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The eastern seaboard will soon be awash in free antibiotics, as Wegmans yesterday announced the 72-store supermarket chain will make a 14-day supply of nine generic oral antibiotics available at no charge.

Giant Foods and Stop & Shop had already announced similar programs.

Wegmans says the program is aimed at helping people get through cold and flu season and will end March 31.

This is a nice public relations effort, and it is truly helpful for consumers who need these drugs. But the fact is that most wintertime ailments—cold, flu, most sore throats, bronchitis, sinusitis—are caused by viruses, not bacteria, and won't respond at all to antibiotics, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But doctors, pressed for time and perhaps not entirely certain that their patient's illness isn't caused by a bacterial infection, often go ahead and prescribe a course of antibiotics anyway. If the drugs are free, the temptation to prescribe is even greater. This can lead to a second problem: antibiotic resistance.

Overuse of antibiotics has led to an alarming growth in bacteria and other microbes that don't respond to the antibiotics that used to kill them. Antibiotic resistance is considered one of the world's most pressing public health problems.

Taking antibiotics when you don't need them may make your body resistant to antibiotics when you do, according to the CDC. If you've got a bug and your doctor says to let it run its course, do that instead of demanding antibiotics, even free ones.