Using antibiotics wisely

What kind of illness do antibiotics treat?

Antibiotics treat bacterial infections- illnesses caused by bacteria. They do not work on viruses.

Should I take an antibiotic for a cold or the flu?

No. Viruses cause both the common cold and the flu, and so antibiotics are ineffective.

What if I have bronchitis?

Most cases of bronchitis are caused by viruses, and so will not respond to antibiotics.

What if I have a sore throat?

Most sore throats are caused by viruses. The exception is caused by group A Streptococcus bacteria. A lab test can determine whether those bacteria are present.

What about ear or sinus infections?

Mild ear infections often do not require antibiotic treatment. Since both bacteria and viruses can cause ear infections, your clinician may try other treatments before deciding on antibiotic use. The same holds true for sinus infections. A bacterial sinus infection may be present if cold symptoms do not improve in 10-14 days.

If I can't take an antibiotic for a virus, what can I do to feel better?

Give your body what it needs to fight the infection: extra sleep, lots of fluids (non-caffeinated) and healthy foods. Over-the-counter medications like throat lozenges and saline nasal sprays can relieve symptoms while your body is fighting the virus. A humidifier may relieve congestion.
Even if antibiotics don't kill viruses, why is it so bad to take them just in case?
Taking antibiotics when they are not needed is one of the main reasons for the development of more and more strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

What are antibiotic-resistant bacteria?

Like all organisms, bacteria work to survive. When antibiotics are overused or used improperly, some bacteria "figure out" how to overcome the antibiotics. These stronger bacteria then spread, reproduce and become a drug-resistant strain. If drug-resistant strains keep developing, we risk running out of effective ways to kill harmful bacteria.

Can my body become resistant to antibiotics?

No. However, bacteria inside your body can develop resistance to a specific antibiotic, making an illness caused by those bacteria much harder to treat.

Should I use antibacterial products to help reduce the risk of infection?

No. These products are useful in health care settings where risk of infection is higher. But for general use, thorough hand washing (15 seconds under hot running water) with ordinary soap adequately reduces infection risk. There is also no need for antibacterial shower cleansers, sponges and the like. Their use simply adds to antibiotic resistance.

How can I help prevent the development of antibiotic-resistant infections?

In two main ways: By not taking antibiotics when you do not need them, and by taking them according to your clinician's directions when you do. Some general rules: 

  • Use antibiotics only when directed. Never ask for or take them for a viral infection such as a cold or the flu. 
  • Never take leftover antibiotics, even if they were originally prescribed for you. The medicine may no longer be effective or may be wrong for your current problem. 
  • Never take antibiotics prescribed for others, even if you think the problem is the same as theirs. It may not be. You may be allergic, or the does may be wrong. Only a clinician can safely prescribe these medications.
  • Always take the full course of the antibiotic unless your clinician indicates otherwise. Stopping the medication before completion, even if you are feeling better, may leave some bacteria alive and allow them to develop resistance to the antibiotic. Of course, if you have an adverse reaction to a medication, contact your clinician immediately.

(Source: Yale Cold Care Center, Yale University Health Services)Medications for Upper Respiratory Tract Infections)

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