Many people assume antibiotics are always “the answer to what ails them.” But, please do not expect or demand antibiotics if your medical practitioner says you have a viral infection or a cold. Many conditions, such as viral infections and allergies, have symptoms similar to bacterial infections, but are not treatable by antibiotics.
Sore throats, colds, and flu are caused by viruses, not bacteria, so taking antibiotics will not help. (One exception is strep throat, which is caused by bacteria, and can be diagnosed by a throat culture.) Coughs and bronchitis are almost always caused by viruses. However, if your symptoms last for more than two weeks, you have a lung condition, or you develop shortness of breath, bacteria could be the culprit. Ear infections come in several types, so if your medical practitioner does not recommend an antibiotic, it is because he or she knows that an antibiotic will not help to make you better.
Sinus infections may be caused by bacteria, viruses, and rarely, fungal infections. Antibiotics should only be used for severe infections, ones that last for more than two weeks, since those are the infections most likely to be caused by bacteria. Parents of children with sinusitis may wish to ask their child’s medical practitioner to hold off prescribing antibiotics to see if the condition clears up on its own.
People are constantly exposed to bacteria in the environment, and sometimes they cause an infection. Improper use of an antibiotic, however, can allow bacteria that have become resistant to the antibiotic to survive. An increasing number of infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis, gonorrhea, pneumonia, and meningitis, have developed strains of bacteria that are resistant to many common antibiotics previously used to fight these illnesses. In some cases, bacterial infections may become untreatable because no current antibiotic is effective.
Bacteria have “plasmids,” which are structures that carry information such as the ability to be resistant to antibiotics. When a population of bacteria is exposed to an antibiotic, some of the bacteria can be resistant to the antibiotic. Even though most of the bacteria are killed and the infection resolved, some may continue to live. They can then transfer “plasmids” to other bacteria, including resistance. Sometimes they can transfer “plasmids” to other types of bacteria.
The result is “super bacteria,” which are causing serious problems today and are very hard to eliminate. Indiscriminately prescribing antibiotics contributes to the problem. There are only a limited number of antibiotics available to treat bacterial illnesses. If you have an infection caused by resistant bacteria, more toxic and more expensive drugs may be required to treat the infection. This can cause hospital stays and higher health care costs.
In extreme cases, antibiotic resistance can spread to other bacterial infections, and some infections may become untreatable because no current antibiotics are effective in killing the resistant bacteria.
It is almost always necessary to have a diagnosis from a medical provider before antibiotics are prescribed for a number of important reasons. Antibiotics have serious side effects, even life-threatening at times. Even a small risk is not justified unless it is known for certain the antibiotic is the appropriate treatment for an individual patient. Frequently a person’s self-diagnosis and/or diagnosis by phone is inaccurate, and this could result in the wrong antibiotic being prescribed and a delay occurring before proper treatment of an illness or infection is begun.
When you are prescribed antibiotics, take the full course of treatment, even if you begin to feel better. The bacteria could still be alive and can breed resistance or rekindle an infection. Do not save antibiotics for later use, or share them with other people. A medical practitioner should evaluate you each time you become ill, and antibiotics should be used only when necessary.