We all know a common cold can easily come across as Z-Pak worthy. But scientists say a simple new test could eliminate the guesswork

By Kylie Gilbert
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When you're stuck in bed in the throes of a nasty cold desperate to find some relief, it's easy to think that the more drugs you take the better. A Z-Pak will make it all go away, right?

Not so fast. As your doc has likely told you before, most colds are caused by viral infections (and antibiotics treat bacteria, not viruses), so taking antibiotics when you don't need them is pretty much useless. Not only will they not help, you also have to deal with a host of possible unpleasant side effects like diarrhea or a yeast infection, not to mention all the wasted time and money at the pharmacy. (Flu, Cold, or Winter Allergies: What's Taking You Down?)

The overuse and unnecessary use of antibiotics are also major public health issues-antibiotics are losing their effectiveness and over-exposure has fueled drug-resistant strains of common illnesses. The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that drug-resistant bacteria cause two million illnesses and 23,000 deaths each year in the U.S. In response to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance, the CDC released a new program with guidelines this week to help explain when antibiotics work and which common illnesses don't require a Rx.

Yet there may soon be an even better way to tell whether antibiotics are actually needed: Doctors have devised a simple blood test that can determine within an hour whether the patient is suffering from a bacterial or viral infection.

Seventy-five percent of patients are prescribed bacteria-fighting antibiotics for viral respiratory infections like colds, pneumonia, and bronchitis-illnesses that would likely get better on their own. With the assurance of a blood test, docs can stop prescribing antibiotics on a 'better safe than sorry' basis, or to simply appease patients who demand them.

"Considering the huge vacuum and the void in helping doctors make decisions about antibiotic use, just about any kind of test is an improvement over what's currently available," Ephraim Tsalik, M.D. assistant professor of medicine at Duke University and Durham Veteran's Affairs Medical Cente, who developed the drugs with his colleague, told Time.com.

While the test is still in the early developmental stages, according to the study published in Science Translational Medicine, the test was accurate 87 percent of the time in distinguishing between bacterial and viral infections and infections caused by something else.

Tsalik said he hopes the test may soon be a routine part of healthcare, taking the guesswork out of all those coughs, sneezes, and runny noses. (In the meantime, try these Home Remedies for the Cold and Flu.)


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