Memorial Regional Health: Understanding when antibiotics are needed — antibiotics cannot treat flu, common cold and many other illnesses
- Antibiotics save lives. When a patient needs antibiotics, the benefits outweigh the risks of side effects and antibiotic resistance.
- Antibiotics aren’t always the answer. Everyone can help improve antibiotic prescribing and use. Improving the way health care professionals prescribe antibiotics and the way we take antibiotics helps keep us healthy now, helps fight antibiotic resistance, and ensures these lifesaving antibiotics will be available for future generations.
- Antibiotics do not work on viruses, such as those that cause colds, flu, bronchitis, or runny noses, even if the mucus is thick, yellow, or green.
- Antibiotics are only needed for treating infections caused by bacteria, but even some bacterial infections get better without antibiotics. Antibiotics aren’t needed for many sinus infections and some ear infections.
- An antibiotic will not make you feel better if you have a virus. Respiratory viruses usually go away in a week or two without treatment. Ask your health care professional about the best way to feel better while your body fights off the virus.
- When antibiotics aren’t needed, they won’t help you, and the side effects could still cause harm. Side effects range from minor to very severe health problems. When you need antibiotics for a bacterial infection, the benefits usually outweigh the risk of side effects.
- Taking antibiotics can lead to antibiotic resistance. Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria develop the ability to defeat the drugs designed to kill them.
- If you need antibiotics, take them exactly as prescribed. Talk with your doctor if you have questions about your antibiotics.
- Talk with your doctor if you develop any side effects, especially severe diarrhea, since that could be a Clostridioides difficile (C. difficile or C. diff) infection, which needs to be treated.
- Do your best to stay healthy and keep others healthy by cleaning hands, covering coughs, staying home when sick, and getting recommended vaccines, such as the flu vaccine.
Taking antibiotics when they’re not necessary can lead to antibiotic resistance in the body, one of the most urgent threats to public health, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Antibiotics are used to treat serious infections, such as pneumonia and life-threatening conditions, including as sepsis. Sometimes, people at high risk for developing infections also need antibiotics, such as patients who have end-stage kidney disease, patients undergoing surgery, or patients receiving chemotherapy treatment, according to the CDC.
The CDC warns that viruses — such as the ones that cause colds, the flu, bronchitis, or runny noses — cannot be treated with antibiotics. It’s important to know this, since about 47 million prescriptions for antibiotics are written unnecessarily each year.
A study published in the May 3, 2016, Journal of the American Medical Association estimated that 30 percent of antibiotic prescriptions written during 184,032 outpatient visits may have been inappropriate, according to a report by Harvard Medical School. “Using an antibiotic when you don’t need it is a problem, because these drugs don’t just kill off harmful bacteria; they also take a toll on the beneficial bacteria inside your body that help to help keep you healthy.”
So, when does the body actually need antibiotics? The CDC says only when it needs to be treated for infections caused by bacteria, but even this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule.
“Even some bacterial infections get better without antibiotics. Antibiotics aren’t needed for many sinus infections and some ear infections,” reports the CDC. “Antibiotics save lives, and when a patient needs antibiotics, the benefits usually outweigh the risk of side effects and antibiotic resistance. When antibiotics aren’t needed, they won’t help you, and the side effects could still cause harm.”
Antibiotics and children
For children with the common cold, the flu, or an upset stomach, antibiotics are not the answer. In fact, they could cause more harm than good down the road, when the body actually does need these life-saving drugs.
According to Memorial Regional Health, strep throat is really the only common illness affecting kids that requires an antibiotic every time. MRH doctors will likely tell you to keep your child home from school with plenty of fluids and rest for the other illnesses.
Taking unnecessary antibiotics doesn’t affect only the person taking them — including raising the risks of side effects that could cause harm, such as nausea, dizziness, rash, diarrhea, and yeast infections; they also could cause harm to the community at-large. When people become resistant to these drugs, the risk of the spread of certain diseases — such as tuberculosis, gonorrhea, typhoid fever, and Group B streptococcus — increases, reports the World Health Organization.
So, how do you avoid getting bacterial infections in the first place? The Mayo Clinic recommends practicing good hygiene, making sure you and your children receive recommended vaccinations, reducing your risk of foodborne illness by cooking foods properly, and washing your hands. And finally, don’t take antibiotics when you don’t need them.