When it comes to fighting common illnesses, antibiotics aren’t always the answer – and they could be doing more harm than good.
“Antibiotics kill bacteria, but they aren't effective against viruses. They don’t fight the viruses that cause colds, sore throats, bronchitis, sinus or ear infections,” said Mercy Clinic Family Medicine physician Keith Ratcliff, MD. “Moreover, taking antibiotics when we don’t need them could make them less effective when we do need them.”
Dr. Ratcliff said these common viruses usually go away without treatment in a week or two. He and other Mercy Clinic physicians recommend foregoing antibiotics during this time and treating the symptoms instead.
“When you have a virus, you need to rest, drink a lot of fluids and take medications to relieve your particular symptoms,” said Dr. Ratcliff.
The best fluids are water, decaffeinated, non-alcoholic drinks and broth. Soups, tea, rehydrating sports drinks are helpful, too. Drug stores carry pain relievers, saline nasal sprays to clear the sinuses, decongestants, cough suppressants and many other choices of symptom relievers.
“If over the counter remedies aren’t easing your symptoms or your symptoms haven’t gone away after two or three weeks, then it’s time to see your physician,” said Dr. Ratcliff. “You may need a prescription strength medication to relieve your symptoms, or you may have a secondary illness.”
These days, doctors are less likely to prescribe an antibiotic even though patients are sick. The medical community, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is reacting to an alarming rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Excess exposure to antibiotics has allowed some germs to acquire an immunity to them.
“When antibiotics are overprescribed for things they don’t treat, like colds and sore throats, an immunity may develop and then they may not work effectively against the bacterial infection you have and they were meant to treat, such as strep throat or a urinary tract infection,” said Dr. Ratcliff. “That’s why physicians are using more discretion when we prescribe antibiotics.”
For kids, fewer antibiotics could also mean fewer emergency department visits. One of the top reasons they come to emergency departments each year is from complications from or allergic reactions to antibiotics and other drugs.