FORT LEE, Va. -- Antibiotics are not the cure for every illness and tend to be frequently over-prescribed, which can lead to bacterial resistance and potential problems when the medication is truly needed.

That precautionary message from the care providers at Kenner Army Health Clinic is directed at beneficiaries who often assume that antibiotics is the remedy for most injuries and illnesses.

“Contrary to popular belief, the drug is not appropriate for viruses such as colds, flu, bronchitis, sore throats and most ear infections,” said Nurse Practitioner Velva Bennett from the Family Medicine Clinic.

“What I am observing in my practice is that patients expect antibiotics to be prescribed for them whenever they are sick,” she observed. “They do not realize this drug is only effective for bacterial infections, and does not work on viruses.”

It’s true that both viruses and bacteria can cause illness, noted Kenner staffers, which underscores the need to go to your doctor for an exam and testing when symptoms persist and/or intensify despite the use of over-the-counter medications. If the illness is virus-related, the health care team will likely opt for treatment that is meant to lessen the discomfort while letting the body’s immune system fight the germs. Since antibiotics are not effective against viruses, they should not be prescribed.

A known side-effect of antibiotic over-usage is the growth of resistant bacteria. At least 2 million people develop this condition each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and at least 23,000 die as a result.

This happens because germs develop ways to protect themselves against antibiotics. Each time the germ is exposed to an antibiotic, it can mutate as a way to survive. If this occurs, the next time an antibiotic is used, it may not work.

“Patients need antibiotics for bacterial infections only,” Bennett reiterated. “This would include strep throat, urinary tract infections or other infections caused by specific bacteria. Lab work is often needed to confirm bacterial infection.”

Many viruses can cause colored mucus, said Bennett. Yellow, green or thick mucus in children does not always indicate a bacterial sinus infection.

“Symptomatic management of these diagnoses is appropriate,” she noted. “It is important to seek medical care (that will likely include a blood test or throat culture) to determine whether the illness is viral or bacterial.”

Antibiotic resistance is one of the most serious public health problems in the United States, according to the CDC. It threatens to return us to a time when simple infections were often fatal.

“It is important for our patients to understand the appropriate use of antibiotics,” Bennett said. “We use extreme care in how we prescribe these drugs so that we protect individual patients from harm as well as combat the larger issue of antibiotic resistance.”

An online CDC statement reads, “No one can completely avoid the risk of resistant infections, but some people are at greater risk than others (for example, those with chronic illnesses). If antibiotics lose their effectiveness, then we lose the ability to treat infections and control public health threats.”