It’s January, which means that it’s time for warm gloves, furry coats and…antibiotics.

Yep, antibiotics.

A new study shows that adults in the US are prescribed antibiotics most often right now, during the first three months of the year.

Now, you might argue, Well, that’s because more people get bacterial infections during the winter.

But check out what else these researchers found, and you’ll see that there may be another reason for it…and, frankly, it’s a reason that outrages me—the findings suggest that many doctors may be behaving badly and putting people at risk.


Scientists examined the national Medicare records of about 1 million seniors annually over three years. They tracked antibiotic prescriptions month by month to see when the most antibiotics were prescribed. They also analyzed the prevalence of the following conditions…

  • Category 1: Bacterial pneumonia. This disease almost always requires antibiotics, according to the study authors.
  • Category 2: Acute nasopharyngitis (the common cold) and nonspecific upper respiratory tract infections. These diseases are usually viral infections, so antibiotics are almost never necessary, according to the study authors.
  • Category 3: Sinusitis, pharyngitis, tonsillitis and bronchitis. These diseases sometimes require antibiotics, but often they don’t, according to the study authors.

In addition, they compared disease prevalence and antibiotic prescription rates in the four main US regions—the Northeast, South, Midwest and West.

Results: As I mentioned earlier, antibiotics were prescribed most often during the first three months of the year. And the rate of bacterial pneumonia (category one), which almost always requires antibiotics, also spiked during those months. So upon first glance, you might think that solely explains the spike in antibiotic prescriptions.

But take a close look at this next finding. When the researchers compared the four regions, they found that the areas that had the highest prevalence of bacterial pneumonia, on average, did not have the highest rate of antibiotic prescriptions, on average, as you would expect. For example, the Northeast had the highest prevalence of bacterial pneumonia, but it didn’t have the highest antibiotic prescription rate—it had the second lowest, after the South and the Midwest. Very peculiar, isn’t it?

In addition, the rates of the diseases that fell into categories two and three (which don’t usually require antibiotics) also spiked during the first three months of the year—not just bacterial pneumonia. “These findings imply that it’s likely that some antibiotics were prescribed inappropriately to older adults to treat diseases that don’t typically require those drugs,” explained lead study author Yuting Zhang, PhD.


You, of course, know that overusing antibiotics can cause bacteria to become drug-resistant, leading to disease strains that can’t be wiped out with standard antibiotics. And taking antibiotics can be pretty hard on your body, too. This knowledge, coupled with the finding above, means that you may want to be extra inquisitive if and when you visit a doctor—especially in the winter.

If your doctor prescribes an antibiotic, should you automatically accept it? That’s a personal decision, but if you ask me, I make sure that my doctor has a darn good reason to give me one before I take it.

In fact, you may want to consider the following advice from regular Daily Health News contributor Andrew Rubman, ND, founder and medical director of the Southbury Clinic for Traditional Medicines in Southbury, Connecticut. He told me that when your doctor prescribes an antibiotic, always ask, “How confident are you that bacteria are causing my illness?” Physicians can rarely be 100% certain that bacteria are the root cause of health problems, Dr, Rubman said—but you should expect at least a fair degree of confidence from your doctor before swallowing antibiotics. Here are more of Dr. Rubman’s tips, below…

  • If bacteria are definitely the cause…Ask these two follow-up questions—are antibiotics absolutely necessary? And what do recent studies show about the effectiveness of the antibiotic you’re suggesting?

    Some bacterial diseases, such as bacterial pneumonia, which was mentioned earlier, almost always require an antibiotic. But others, such as the diseases in categories two and three above, can often be resolved with over-the-counter remedies. “The OTC antihistamine drug diphenhydramine (Benadryl) is a good decongestant for occasional use, and your naturopath may consider prescribing you natural treatments such as nettle, echinacea, horehound, cajaput seed oil and/or henbane to shorten the duration and symptom intensity of your condition,” said Dr. Rubman. So find out from your doctor whether you can try an OTC product first. Keep in mind that all supplements have potential side effects and contraindications based on certain medical conditions that you may have and drugs that you may take, so take them under a doctor’s care. 

    If your doctor insists that an antibiotic is necessary and explains that there is scientific evidence that it’s shown to be effective in relieving or curing your particular health problem, then ask whether you need a “broad-spectrum” type or whether a “narrow-spectrum” type will do, because a broad-spectrum type may be overkill for the problem at hand.

  • If your doctor isn’t sure whether the cause is bacterial or viral…You’re faced with a more difficult decision. Ask what your options are besides antibiotics and how likely they are to help, and then, after weighing all the benefits and risks with your doctor, make a judgment call.
  • If a virus is definitely the cause…Skip the antibiotics and ask your doctor what sort of treatment might help. If you’re interested in using a natural treatment, specifically, it’s best to consult a naturopathic doctor. Supplements containing the herbs lobelia (Indian tobacco), Ligusticum porteri (called osha by Native Americans) or larch tree bark (Larix occidentalis) can help clear mucus from the respiratory tract, for instance, if you have a respiratory infection.

Now, your doctor may say, “the cause of the illness is viral, but I want to give you an antibiotic to prevent any secondary bacterial infections.” Dr. Rubman said that in this type of situation, it’s best to consult a naturopathic doctor for a second opinion. And if you do eventually get a secondary infection, first ask your doctor to try to confirm that it’s bacterial through symptom examination and/or lab tests before considering an antibiotic.