Do I need antibiotics?

Do I need antibiotics?
Last week was U.S. Antibiotic Awareness Week.  This happens annually in an effort to highlight the steps that everyone can take to improve how and when we use antibiotics.

Antibiotic resistance is a serious problem in the world today.  Bacteria have many ways in which they can become resistant to antibiotics, meaning that they develop ways to overcome the particular way in which an antibiotic is designed to kill them.  Every year, at least 2 million people in the U.S. become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.  Almost 25,000 people die each year as a direct result of this problem.  The CDC estimates that at least 47 million antibiotic prescription each year are unnecessary.

The more an antibiotic is used, the more likely bacteria are to become resistant to that antibiotic.  This is particularly true when antibiotics are used inappropriately, such as when they are not taken for the full course of treatment when prescribed for bacterial infections, or when they are taken when they are not needed.

Improving the way in which antibiotics are prescribed, and taken by patients, can help to fight antibiotic resistance.  Limiting antibiotic resistance ensures that the medication will be available to help fight infections for many years to come.

I want to talk today about when antibiotics will help, and when they won’t.
Antibiotics are only needed to treat certain infections caused by bacteria.  These infections include strep throat, whooping cough, urinary tract infections, among others.

Antibiotics will not help treat infections caused by viruses.  These infections include the common cold, the flu, and the vast majority of upper respiratory infections that we have this time of year.

Not only will antibiotics not help with viral infections, they can actually be dangerous.  Antibiotics can cause serious, sometimes life threatening, side effects.  In my own practice, I have had patients who have had extremely serious side effects to an antibiotic, which almost cost them their lives.

You may be surprised to know that most sinus infections are caused by viruses, and will typically resolve within about 2 weeks without antibiotics.  Bronchitis is caused by a virus over 90% of the time in otherwise healthy people.  This infection can cause a cough and chest congestion that can sometimes last up to 5-6 weeks, but does not improve with antibiotics.  Even ear infections can sometimes be caused by viruses.

In infections which may be caused by a virus or bacteria, whether or not to use antibiotics depends on many factors.  The choice should be weighed carefully, without automatically prescribing antibiotics.   It is usually a good idea to try symptomatic treatment for a period of time to see if things will improve without antibiotics.
Viruses can make you feel really bad.  Don’t think that I mean that you are not sick when you have a viral infection.  In fact, the worst I have ever felt was when I had a viral infection.  I just want you to know that antibiotics are not always needed.  Antibiotics may seem to make us feel better, just because the viral infection improves with time.  Sometimes, we just need time, and all of those things your grandma always told you to do when you were sick, like rest, drink lots of fluids, hot tea, steam, etc.

If you have questions about whether your grandma’s home remedy is the right one for you, just email one of our doctors.  We are happy to help.

For more information about this subject visit www.cdc.gov/antibiotic-use.

If you have any more questions just Ask Hanna, our health advisors are here to help.

Dr. Anita Bennett MD – Health Tip Content Editor
Image: ©Shutterstock / ESB Professional

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