When antibiotics are prescribed and used properly, they live up to their reputation as “miracle drugs,” helping patients recover quickly and safely.
But when the medications aren’t used right, patients can build resistance and bacteria can adapt, creating “superbugs” that don’t respond to existing antibiotics. And since drug makers aren’t devoting time or money to creating new antibiotics, it’s up to everyone to do their part to protect the effectiveness of those that are currently available.
Everyone wants to feel better fast when they get sick. But sometimes an antibiotic isn’t the answer.
Clinical Pharmacy Specialist Maegan Rogers, PharmD, BCPS, CDE and Sara Cross, MD, have worked on that issue as part of Regional One Health’s Antibiotic Stewardship Committee. They also have some advice for consumers:
If you have a virus, you don’t need an antibiotic.
Generally, common illnesses are caused by one of two culprits: bacteria or viruses. Antibiotics work wonders on fighting bacteria. They do nothing to help with viruses.
Bacterial illnesses include ear and sinus infections, strep throat, whooping cough, meningitis, bladder and kidney infections and bacterial pneumonia. However, conditions like the common cold and most coughs and sore throats, flu, stomach flu and some types of bronchitis are all viral.
Patients should listen to their doctor and follow the prescribed treatment plan. It can be hard to know if an illness is viral or bacterial, so doctors often do tests to determine cause and treatment.
“When patients come in with an upper-respiratory infection and want an antibiotic, we try to take the time to explain to them that it’s viral, and an antibiotic won’t help,” Dr. Cross said.
Consider your symptoms
Even if your doctor does diagnose you with a bacterial infection, it doesn’t necessarily mean you need an antibiotic.
If your symptoms are mild and you don’t have additional risk factors, you can often recover from illness without medicine.
Have you been feeling unwell for a long time? Are you getting worse? Is your illness making it hard to breathe or eat? If so, then an antibiotic is probably in order.
But if your symptoms are mild and you have no compounding risk factors (being elderly or very young, a compromised immune system, underlying heart disease or other conditions, etc.), it is very likely safe for you to take the “watchful waiting” approach.
Chances are you’ll get better on your own with no antibiotic, and you’ll avoid the potential side effects of taking medication. “Trust that your care providers want to limit unnecessary antibiotic use because there are side effects and the risk of resistance,” Rogers said.
Use your medication properly
Meanwhile, if you are prescribed an antibiotic, make sure you use it as directed.
Say your doctor prescribes a 10-day course of antibiotics. After a week, you’re feeling better. With the sense of urgency gone and your symptoms no longer front-and-center in your mind, you either forget to take the rest of the pills or intentionally toss them out.
Follow the instructions you’re given with your antibiotic. It’s important to take the full course and use them only as prescribed.
Without meaning to, you’ve opened the door to a superbug.
The drug may not have killed all the bacteria in your body, and any remaining bacteria could become resistant. You could also get sick again.
“Take the whole prescription, and don’t miss doses,” Dr. Cross said. “It’s important to take the medication as the doctor prescribed it.”
If you start feeling sick, don’t think you can cure yourself by taking your own or someone else’s leftover antibiotics.
Even if you do have a bacterial infection rather than a virus, the antibiotics you have on hand may not be appropriate for your specific condition. By taking them, you could suffer side effects and delay appropriate treatment – while in the meantime your condition gets worse.
If you are sick and feel you may need medication, always visit your doctor first. They can decide which, if any, antibiotic is appropriate, and also give you advice on easing your symptoms.