Taking Unnecessary Antibiotics May Do More Harm Than Good
Heres the biggest problem with overusing antibiotics: Bacteria adapt.
Bacteria become resistant to drugs over time, making it harder to treat bacterial infections. In rare cases, this leads to deadly drug-resistant bacterial infections.
Drug-resistant bacteria make it harder to find effective drug options when you do face a severe infection, Dr. Allan says. When you are talking about large groups of people, this resistance can be dangerous, making it easier for an infection to spread.
Reasons Why You Did Not Receive Antibiotics From Your Provider
Have you ever left your health care providers office feeling frustrated that you didnt get an antibiotic for a sinus infection, sore throat, or ear infection? If you answered yes, you are not alone. Each year, millions of people visit their provider looking for antibiotics to cure infections. The reality is that most of these illness are caused by viruses and do not need antibiotics to get better. This includes the common cold, sore throats that are not caused by Strep, most coughs, bronchitis, ear infectionsand sinus infections. Yes, I said ear infections and sinus infections!
How can my doctor tell whether my illness is caused by a virus or bacteria? Though there is no easy way to tell for sure, infections caused by bacteria often take on certain characteristics. They tend to last longer, cause a fever of 100.4 degrees or greater, and may make people sick enough to be hospitalized. Evidence shows that infections lasting 10 days or longer are more likely caused by bacteria, and infections lasting less than that are caused by viruses.
At this point, you might be shaking your head in disbelief, or asking How can that be? You might even wonder why your doctor isnt treating you just in case. After all, 10 days is a long time to wait when you are feeling ill. The answer is tri-fold:
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Will I Need Antibiotics To Treat My Chest Infection
Antibiotics aren’t recommended in most cases, because they only work if the infection is caused by bacteria, and most chest infections are viral.
Your GP will usually only provide antibiotics if they think you have pneumonia, or if you’re at risk of complications like fluid building up around the lungs.
If you are prescribed antibiotics for a bacterial chest infection, make sure you finish the full course.
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Bacterial Vs Viral Infection
As the names suggest, bacteria cause bacterial infections, and viruses cause viral infections.
It is important to know whether bacteria or viruses cause an infection, because the treatments differ. Examples of bacterial infections include whooping cough, strep throat, ear infection and urinary tract infection .
It can be difficult to know what causes an infection, because viral and bacterial infections can cause similar symptoms. Your doctor may need a sample of your urine, stool or blood, or a swab from your nose or throat to see what sort of infection you have.
Using Antibiotics Responsibly: Our Commitment
At Atrium Health, we spread antibiotic education to our doctors through our Antimicrobial Support Network and patient care collaborative, which both work with doctors to make sure patients are prescribed the most appropriate antibiotics. The ultimate goal is to improve your care and safety.
About Atrium Health
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Most Sinus Infections Dont Require Antibiotics
Ah, . The New England Journal of Medicine published a clinical practice review of acute sinus infections in adults, that is, sinus infections of up to four weeks. The need for an updated review was likely spurred by the disconcerting fact that while the vast majority of acute sinus infections will improve or even clear on their own without antibiotics within one to two weeks, most end up being treated with antibiotics.
It is this discrepancy that has clinical researchers and public health folks jumping up and down in alarm, because more unnecessary prescriptions for antibiotics mean more side effects and higher bacterial resistance rates. But on the other hand, while 85% of sinus infections improve or clear on their own, theres the 15% that do not. Potential complications are rare, but serious, and include brain infections, even abscesses.
The Bodys Response To Viral Infection
Viruses pose a considerable challenge to the bodys immune system because they hide inside cells. This makes it difficult for antibodies to reach them. Some special immune system cells, called T-lymphocytes, can recognise and kill cells containing viruses, since the surface of infected cells is changed when the virus begins to multiply. Many viruses, when released from infected cells, will be effectively knocked out by antibodies that have been produced in response to infection or previous immunisation.
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Antibiotics Slow Down Your Response To Infection
In 2012, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that mice treated with antibiotics were unable to fully fight off the flu virus.6
This is because antibiotics wipe out the healthy bacteria that naturally protect the body.
You will find these protective microbes in the gut, on the surface of the skin, along the birth canal, and in the respiratory tract. Without these healthy communities of native microbes, the immune system isnt able to mount a strong attack on the flu virus. Researchers have also found that antibiotics slow down the clearance of an infection meaning more sick days out. When you treat a viral infection with antibiotics, you cripple your immune system.
Why Antibiotics Were Not Prescribed For A Viral Infection
Colds, flu, and many other upper respiratory infections such as bronchitis and rhinosinusitis are usually caused by viruses.
Antibiotics do not kill viruses. Viral infections are almost always cured by your bodys own immune system.
Based on your history and physical examination, it is likely that your illness is caused by a virus. Your illness is unlikely to be helped by an antibiotic. Antibiotics do not shorten the length of time that you will feel sick from a virus. Antibiotics do not prevent you from spreading an illness caused by a virus. Patients given antibiotics may start to feel better, but this is because the virus infection is resolving on its own and not because of the antibiotic.
In addition, taking antibiotics can come with certain risks:
- Almost one in every four persons taking antibiotics experiences side effects .
- Rarely, people can have severe allergic reactions to antibiotics.
- Using antibiotics when they arent needed can lead to the antibiotics not working against other infections in the future, also known as antibiotic resistance.
- Taking antibiotics can increase the risk for Clostridium difficile infection, a form of diarrhea that requires additional treatment with antibiotics and even stool transplant in severe cases.
Seek re-evaluation by your healthcare provider if you experience any of the following:
- You dont get better after a week
- You get better, but then get worse again
- You have a high fever
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Which Common Infections Require Antibiotics
Patients often ask doctors for antibiotics, not knowing whether antibiotics actually treat those conditions. And doctors tend to over-prescribe antibiotics for conditions that dont always require them. Below, well talk about some common infections and what you should know about treating them.
Colds and flu
Colds and the flu are caused by viruses, so antibiotics wont help. Instead, youll want to focus on managing your symptoms. If you have the flu, your doctor may recommend an antiviral medication like .
If your cold or flu lasts for 2 weeks or more, you may be more likely to develop a bacterial sinus infection or pneumonia. In these cases, its important to visit the doctor to talk about your symptoms. If they prescribe antibiotics, its because youve developed a bacterial infection on top of your cold or flu.
Sinus infections occur when fluid builds up in the air-filled pockets in your face , allowing germs to grow. Symptoms include pain or pressure in your face, a runny or stuffy nose, headache, and mucus dripping down the back of your throat.
Urinary tract infections
Common antibiotics doctors prescribe for UTIs are , , and .
Sore throat, strep throat, and tonsillitis
Inflammation of your throat or tonsils can cause soreness and pain, and you may or may not need antibiotics to treat it. If your sore throat is caused by a virus , you wont need antibiotics. But when its due to bacteria, as in strep throat and bacterial tonsillitis, you will.
You Should Not Save Old Antibiotics Just In Case
If you have some antibiotics leftover from the last time you were sick, dont just start taking them. For one thing, as mentioned above, different antibiotics treat different types of bacterial infections. You cant just assume that your leftover medication will work. And, again, taking the wrong medicine when it wont help means you risk side effects and future drug resistance.
None of this information should scare you away from taking antibiotics as prescribed when you truly need them. But doctors should prescribe them with caution and patients should know that they are not a risk-free cure-all.
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How Can Vaccines Help
Many infections can be prevented by following the recommended vaccine schedule as proposed by the CDC, so be sure to keep up-to-date with your vaccines and those of your children. Your doctor and pharmacist can provide more information about important vaccines for you and your family.
Vaccines are readily available in the U.S. to help prevent the COVID-19 infection. These vaccines are safe and effective, can help keep you out of the hospital, and can help prevent severe illness and death. Learn more about the COVID-19 vaccines here.
Be Antibiotics Aware: Smart Use Best Care
Be Antibiotics Aware is the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions national educational effort to help improve antibiotic prescribing and use and combat antibiotic resistance.
Antibiotic resistance is one of the most urgent threats to the publics health. Antibiotic resistance happens when germs, like bacteria and fungi, develop the ability to defeat the drugs designed to kill them. That means the germs are not killed and continue to grow. More than 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections occur in the United States each year, and more than 35,000 people die as a result.
Antibiotics can save lives, but any time antibiotics are used, they can cause side effects and contribute to the development of antibiotic resistance. Each year, at least 28% of antibiotics are prescribed unnecessarily in U.S. doctors offices and emergency rooms , which makes improving antibiotic prescribing and use a national priority.
Helping healthcare professionals improve the way they prescribe antibiotics, and improving the way we take antibiotics, helps keep us healthy now, helps fight antibiotic resistance, and ensures that these life-saving drugs will be available for future generations.
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Antibiotics Are Not One
The antibiotics that work for a urinary tract infection arent the same as the ones that will fight strep throat. And the broad-spectrum antibiotics used to fight infections in hospitals arent the same as the very specific antibiotics your doctor may prescribe to treat a bacterial ear infection.
Heres why thats matters: If you take the wrong medication, it wont be effective.
On top of that, it may have unpleasant and unwanted side effects. In most cases, side effects of antibiotics are pretty benign. But, for example, taking those broad-spectrum antibiotics for an extended period of time can put you at risk for C. diff, a severe and hard-to-treat infection.
Can I Treat A Cold With An Antibiotic
Using an antibiotic for a virus, like a cold or the flu:
- will not cure the virus
- wont help you feel better
- will not prevent others from catching your virus
- will be a waste of your money.
Many bacterial infections do require an antibiotic however, the type of antibiotic will vary based on the type of infection. An antibiotic either prevents bacterial growth or kills bacteria outright .
It is very important not to share your antibiotics with someone else. For example, amoxicillin can be used to treat a bacterial strep throat but will not work for some common pneumonias or bladder infections.
While you may mean well if you share your medicine, the bacteria causing someone else’s infection may not be susceptible to your prescribed antibiotic. In turn, those bacteria may not die and that person’s infection can worsen. Plus, the person you share your antibiotic with may experience side effects or serious allergic reactions from your drug. Overall, sharing any medicine with someone else is risky business.
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What Is The Fastest Way To Get Rid Of A Phlegm Cough
Taking the following actions can help to eliminate excess mucus and phlegm:Keeping the air moist. Drinking plenty of fluids. Applying a warm, wet washcloth to the face. Keeping the head elevated. Not suppressing a cough. Discreetly getting rid of phlegm. Using a saline nasal spray or rinse. Gargling with salt water.More items
Differences Between Bacterial And Viral Infection
While bacteria and viruses can both cause mild to serious infections, they are different from each other. This is important to understand, because bacterial and viral infections must be treated differently. Misusing antibiotics to treat viral infections contributes to the problem of antibiotic resistance.
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Q How Do We Know If An Infection Is Viral Or Bacterial
A. There isnt an easy way to separate the two perfectly. Instead, physicians look at patterns and symptoms to discern whether an infection is viral or bacterial. For example, having a runny nose with clear discharge for a week is likely viral. If it continues longer and you develop facial pain or a yellow-green discharge, it may be that a bacterial infection has taken root.
People need to be very specific about their symptoms and how long theyve had them when contacting their doctor.
When Do You Really Need Antibiotics For That Sinus Infection
- By Monique Tello, MD, MPH, Contributor
It was February, and clinic was teeming with respiratory infections of all kinds: mostly the common cold, but also bronchitis, pneumonia, and sinus infections. The patients were coming in usually thinking that they needed antibiotics for their sinus infection, or another respiratory infection.The first patient on my schedule was a healthcare provider with sinus infection written down as her main issue.* Shed had about two weeks of nasal and sinus congestion which she blamed on a viral upper respiratory infection . Her two young kids had been sick with colds all winter, so she wasnt surprised to have these symptoms, along with endless postnasal drip and a cough.
Her congestion had improved a bit at one point, and she thought that she was finally getting better. But then, the day before her appointment, she awoke with throbbing pain between her eyes, completely blocked nasal passages, and, more concerning to her, green pus oozing from her left tear duct. She had body aches, chills, and extreme fatigue.
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What Is A Viral Ear Infection
A viral ear infection is an infection of the ear caused by the presence of a virus. Influenza, rhinovirus, and respiratory syncytial virus are common culprits behind viral infections involving the ear. While antibiotics are commonly prescribed for severe ear infections, they will not be useful in the treatment of a viral infection, as viruses are not susceptible to antibiotic medication. Most viral ear infections resolve on their own with supportive therapy and do not require treatment.
There are several ways a virus can cause an ear infection. In some cases, viruses infecting the nose or sinuses cause inflammation and irritation in the eustachian tube, a structure that provides drainage for the ear. If the ear cannot drain, fluid builds up, causing inflammation and eventual infection within the ear. Other viruses can attack the ear itself, causing the structures in the ear to become infected. The body can usually fight the virus off, although the patient may experience some pain, discomfort, and temporary hearing loss while the infection runs its course.
Who Else Should See Their Gp
- Those aged 65 or over
- Overweight people who have difficulty breathing
- Kids under the age of five
- Anyone with a weakened immune system
- Anyone with a long-term health condition
- If your symptoms aren’t improving after a week
- If you have chest pain/difficulty breathing
- If you cough up blood
- If you skin or lips develop a blue tinge
- If your symptoms are severe
- If you feel confused, disorientated or drowsy
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Cold Symptoms That Are Normal
Parents sometimes are worried about common cold symptoms. The symptoms below are not signs of bacterial infections. Nor, are they a reason to start antibiotics.
- Green or yellow nose discharge. This is a normal part of getting over a cold. It is not a clue to a sinus infection.
- Green or yellow coughed up phlegm. This is a normal part of getting over viral bronchitis. It is not a sign of pneumonia.
- High fevers. High fevers can be caused by a virus or bacteria.