The CDC has designated this week as “Get Smart About Antibiotics Week,” and is encouraging state health departments and other groups to raise awareness about the appropriate use of antibiotics. As cold season begins, CDC reminds us that antibiotics don’t cure viral infections – and using antibiotics inappropriately contributes to the evolution of antimicrobial-resistant pathogens. The campaign targets parents, healthcare providers, and pharmacists with information about when antibiotic use is and is not appropriate. 

The New York Times’ Anahad O’Connor (whether intentionally or not) has done a big service to this campaign by telling readers that green nasal discharge doesn’t necessarily indicate a bacterial infection that would improve with antibiotics. The article highlights a study that randomly assigned children with green nasal discharge to receive an antibiotic or a placebo, and found the groups’ outcomes to be similar.  

While this particular CDC campaign focuses on the use of antibiotics for human illness, the agency also has a “Get Smart on the Farm” program promoting the appropriate use of antibiotics in livestock. Large-scale livestock producers often dose their herds routinely with antibiotics to promote growth, instead of reserving the drugs for actual cases of illness. Since many of the antibiotics they use are the same as or similar to the ones we use for human infections, livestock producers’ practices also affect humans’ ability to recover quickly and safely from infections. (Visit the Union of Concerned Scientists’ website for more on the problem and where U.S. policy stands.)  

In short, neither sneezing green snot nor raising a herd of animals automatically calls for antibiotics. We should all use antibiotics judiciously so they’ll work when we really need them.