Updated for 2023: The CDC has listed antimicrobial resistance as one of the greatest public health challenges of our time because there are few treatment options for people infected with antimicrobial-resistant bacteria.
Antibiotic resistance is a growing problem worldwide and is primarily caused by the overuse and misuse of antibiotics. When bacteria are exposed to low levels of antibiotics over a long period of time, they can develop resistance to the drugs. This can happen when people take antibiotics for viral infections, such as the common cold, which are caused by viruses and are not affected by antibiotics. It can also occur when people do not take the full course of antibiotics as prescribed, allowing some bacteria to survive and potentially develop resistance.
When we’re feeling bad, it’s natural to want a quick and easy solution. Many patients have come to expect an antibiotic prescription as a magic cure-all. But antibiotics don’t work on viruses–including cold and flu, and unnecessary antibiotics use can have very dangerous consequences. Sometimes when you’re sick, your primary care doctor will send you home empty-handed because that’s best for you as a patient and for public health. At Comprehensive Primary Care, we’re working hard to educate patients about when antibiotics are necessary–and when they aren’t.
What Are Antibiotics?
Antibiotics are powerful drugs that have been saving lives for the last 100 years. They fight bacterial infections by killing bacteria or preventing them from growing or multiplying. They’re still the best tool for doctors to treat a range of conditions. However, antibiotics are not a cure-all and do not work on viruses, which are a very different type of microorganism from bacteria. And viruses, not bacteria, are responsible for a huge share of common adult and childhood illnesses.
What Can Happen When Antibiotics Are Overprescribed?
Taking antibiotics when they’re not needed is leading to the major problem of antibiotic resistance. According to the Centers for Disease Control, when a patient takes antibiotics, targeted bacteria are killed, but resistant bacteria are left to grow and multiply. This increases the level of drug-resistant bacteria and has led to the emergence of so-called superbugs. Not only are antibiotic-resistant bacteria difficult to kill and expensive to treat, according to the CDC, in some cases, antibiotic-resistant infections can lead to disability or death.
According to the CDC, at least 30% of antibiotic courses prescribed in an outpatient setting (including doctors offices and clinics) are unnecessary. When you take antibiotics for a viral infection, they can actually attack beneficial bacteria in your body and can damage your health. Taking antibiotics only when absolutely necessary and taking them exactly as prescribed is the best way to reduce antibiotic resistance. Your primary care doctor knows when antibiotics are an appropriate treatment, so patients should avoid pressuring their doctor to prescribe antibiotics when they’re not medically necessary.
What Conditions Are Antibiotics Good at Treating?
Antibiotics are designed to treat certain bacterial infections and are still the best choice for conditions including:
- Some urinary tract infections, bladder and kidney infections
- Strep throat
- Some ear and sinus infections
- Bacterial pneumonia
What Are Some Common Illnesses That Shouldn’t Be Treated With Antibiotics
If you have a virus, antibiotics won’t make you feel better and can make your illness worse. Conditions that shouldn’t be treated with antibiotics include:
- Most sore throats
- Some ear infections
- Some sinus infections
- Stomach viruses
- Viral respiratory infections
According to the CDC, only 20 to 30 percent of sore throats in children and 5 to 15 percent in adults are strep throat. That’s why it’s important to get that culture and wait to prescribe antibiotics.
What Should I Do If I Have a Flu or Cold?
Flu and cold symptoms are caused by common viruses. Antibiotics won’t help and won’t even make you feel better. Your body is actually designed to fight off these viruses on its own, and your primary care doctor can make recommendations to ease symptoms, many of which are time-honored steps that really do work.
- The Flu: antibiotics do not help fight the flu. For certain high-risk populations like seniors and young children, an antiviral drug may be prescribed. But for most healthy children and adults, letting your body fight the illness and getting rest and fluids are the best ways to fight the flu.
- Colds: According to the CDC, there are more than 200 viruses that can cause common colds, with the rhinovirus as the most common. And guess what–antibiotics are not effective against any of these viruses, and may do more harm than good.
- Coughs: the CDC recommends breathing steam from a hot shower or bowl, non-medicated lozenges and honey for adults and children over a year old. For children over the age of four, some over the counter cough medicines can also relieve symptoms–be sure to check with your primary care doctor before using.
The CDC has recommendations for symptom relief for colds and flu while your body fights off the virus. They include:
- Get plenty of rest
- Drink fluids
- Use a humidifier or cool mist vaporizer
- Use acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naproxen for pain and fever
- Use a saline spray or nasal drops for stuffy nose
Antibiotics Prescriptions at Comprehensive Primary Care
At CPC, we recognize the life-saving necessity of antibiotics and prescribe them as needed for a range of infections. But as a team, we have become more conscious of the issue of antibiotic resistance in recent years. We seek to thoughtfully educate our patients about how antibiotics work and why they are not always the solution. Sometimes this means saying no when a valued patient is convinced that antibiotics will help. But together with our patients, we know we can improve outcomes for individuals and for public health and help our patients thrive.