BHealthy Blog

Antibiotics: When Do You Really Need Them?

We’ve all been there. You know you are sick and you don’t want to “give it a week” to see if it gets better without antibiotics. We feel we don’t have time to wait. Dr. David Gerson with Sherwood Family Medical Center has some advice on whether or not we should.

What are bacteria and viruses?

Bacteria are single-celled organisms found all over the inside and outside of our bodies. Many bacteria are not harmful. In fact, some are actually helpful, including the majority of bacteria that live in our intestines (guts). However, disease-causing bacteria can cause illnesses such as strep throat. Viruses, on the other hand, are microbes that are even smaller than bacteria that cannot survive outside the body’s cells. They cause illness by invading healthy cells.

What is an antibiotic?

Antibiotics, also known as antimicrobial drugs, are drugs that fight infections caused by bacteria in both humans and animals. Antibiotics fight these infections either by killing the bacteria or making it difficult for the bacteria to grow and multiply. Antibiotics do not have any effect on viruses.

The term “antibiotic” originally referred to a natural compound that kills bacteria, such as certain types of mold or chemicals produced by living organisms. Technically, the term “antimicrobial” refers to both natural and synthetic (man-made) compounds; however, many people use the word “antibiotic” to refer to both.

Which infections are caused by viruses and should not be treated with antibiotics?

Viral infections should not be treated with antibiotics. Common infections caused by viruses include:

  • Colds
  • Flu
  • Most sore throats
  • Most coughs and bronchitis (“chest colds”)
  • Many sinus infections
  • Many ear infections

What is antibiotic resistance?

Antibiotic resistance is the ability of bacteria to resist the effects of an antibiotic. Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria change in a way that reduces the effectiveness of drugs, chemicals, or other agents designed to cure or prevent infections. The bacteria survive and continue to multiply, causing more harm.

Why should I care about antibiotic resistance?

Antibiotic resistance has been called one of the world’s most pressing public health problems. Antibiotic resistance can cause illnesses that were once easily treatable with antibiotics to become dangerous infections, prolonging suffering for children and adults. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can spread to family members, schoolmates, and co-workers, and may threaten your community. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are often more difficult to kill and more expensive to treat. In some cases, the antibiotic-resistant infections can lead to serious disability or even death.

Although some people think a person becomes resistant to specific drugs, it is the bacteria, not the person, that become resistant to the drugs.

Why are bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics?

Overuse and misuse of antibiotics can promote the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Every time a person takes antibiotics, sensitive bacteria (bacteria that antibiotics can still attack) are killed, but resistant bacteria are left to grow and multiply. This is how repeated use of antibiotics can increase the number of drug-resistant bacteria.

Antibiotics are not effective against viral infections like the common cold, flu, most sore throats, bronchitis, and many sinus and ear infections. Widespread use of antibiotics for these illnesses is an example of how overuse of antibiotics can promote the spread of antibiotic resistance. Smart use of antibiotics is key to controlling the spread of resistance.

What Can I do to protect myself and my community from antibiotic resistance?

  • Ask your healthcare professional if there are steps you can take to feel better and get symptomatic relief without using antibiotics.
  • Take the prescribed antibiotic exactly as your healthcare professional tells you.
  • Discard any leftover medication.
  • Ask your healthcare professional about vaccines recommended for you and your family to prevent infections that may require an antibiotic.
  • Never skip doses.
  • Never take an antibiotic for a viral infection like a cold or the flu.
  • Never pressure your healthcare professional to prescribe an antibiotic.
  • Never save antibiotics for the next time you get sick.
  • Never take antibiotics prescribed for someone else.

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