If you thought accepting free antibiotics from supermarket chains this winter was a great way to survive tough economical times, you may want to reconsider. Some health experts say promoting free prescription meds may be more harmful than helpful to customers and they believe that these giveaways contribute to the misuse of medications, build drug resistance and perpetuate the myths about what antibiotics can treat.

As a result, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) are warning large retailers, such as Wegmans, ShopRite, Stop and Shop, Giant Food and Meijers, about giving away antibiotics. Health authorities are concerned that these kinds of retail programs are ill-advised.

“We were a little alarmed, especially when they suggested they’d be doing it during cold and flu season,” said Lauri Hicks, MD, medical director of the CDC’s program on appropriate antibiotic use. “We know that antibiotics aren’t effective for cold and flu. We don’t want to perpetuate the idea that they are.”

How do stores respond? They plan on continuing with the sales, maintaining that they are simply filling their customers prescriptions and helping them save money.

The bottom line, however, is that about 142,000 emergency department visits each year are tied to antibiotic use, mostly allergic reactions, according to a study in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases. “There’s a perception that antibiotics are like candy,” said Hicks. “The fact is that antibiotics are not harmless.“