The antibiotic that can kill you

One of the most commonly used antibiotics on the planet has a risk that goes way beyond the usual nausea and diarrhea. In fact, alarming new numbers show that this one can actually kill you.

It's called azithromycin, but if you were on the receiving end of one of the 55 million prescriptions written for it last year, you probably know it better as the drug in the "Z-Pak" sold under the brand name Zithromax.

And if you were, be glad you're still here to read this warning -- because researchers say people who take this med die at nearly triple the rate of people who get no meds at all, and double the rate of those who get the competing antibiotic amoxicillin.

All told, they wrote in The New England Journal of Medicine that 85 out of every 1 million patients who take azithromycin die. If you're already facing heart risk, that number is even higher -- 245 deaths per million.

The feds issued a warning after the study came out, but were quick to say that the overall risk is small. I'll let you be the judge of that -- but why take that risk at all when most people who get the drug never even needed it in the first place?

Antibiotics only work against bacteria, not viruses. But since docs usually can't tell which is which without waiting days for test results, they often give the meds to everyone.

They figure they're covered either way, since a viral illness will often clear up on its own while a bacterial illness will probably respond to the Z-Pak. The patient gets better no matter what and everyone wins, right?

Wrong.

Clearly, there's a lot to lose when you take an antibiotic you don't need. Along with that risk of death, all antibiotics come with a risk of stomach pain and diarrhea -- and if that's not enough, they can wreck the delicate balance of bacteria in your gut.

And let's not forget that antibiotic overuse is leading to the rise of drug-resistant superbugs.

I won't say you never need an antibiotic. Sometimes you do, and I prescribe them -- even Z-Paks -- myself, but only when the patient needs help beyond natural therapies, which isn't very often.