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Rapid Flu Test Helps Curb Antibiotic Over Use

If you've got the flu, says Ann Falsey, a doctor in Rochester, New York, follow the advice your mother might give you: "Get plenty of rest. Drink lots of fluids. And expect to be sick for a few days."

You should NOT take an antibiotic or ask your doctor to prescribe one. The flu is a virus and antibiotics only help resolve bacterial infections.

Falsey and colleagues at the University of Rochester wanted to find out whether doctors would change their prescribing habits if they had results from a rapid flu test, like the kind given to all patients admitted to Rochester General Hospital with respiratory ailments. "We were very interested in this question because the world is seeing an increase in antimicrobial-resistant organisms, and so anything that we can do to rationally decrease the unnecessary use of antibiotics, we see as a good thing."

Falsey says the results showed that doctors in the hospital prescribed fewer antibiotics when a rapid test showed the patient had a viral infection. "Of those who were rapid-test-positive, 14 percent of the doctors stopped the antibiotics, versus only three percent if you were rapid-test-negative."

It is not uncommon to prescribe antibiotics for patients with a viral infection, especially if the patient is suspected of also having a bacterial infection. A doctor may also believe that antibiotics could help prevent subsequent infections that might occur when the patient is weak with the flu or other virus.

Falsey says better guidelines are needed to help physicians distinguish more reliably which patients have bacterial infections and which are at low risk of such infections, so antibiotics can safely be stopped.

The study appeared online in the Archives of Internal Medicine.