Antibiotics are a life-saving tool in the medical field but using them incorrectly can result in serious harm. Keystone Health’s Medical Director of Infectious Diseases, Dr. Raghavendra Tirupathi, along with final year medical students studying under him who have an interest in the prevention and management of infectious diseases, Hashem Haj Ebrahimi and Hiyam Ghneim, discuss antibiotic resistance in today’s article.
What are antibiotics?
Antibiotics are medications that combat bacterial infections by either eliminating the bacteria or by stopping its reproduction. While patients often expect antibiotic prescriptions when they are sick, antibiotics are effective only against bacterial infections and play no role in treating viral infections. Misuse, such as taking an antibiotic when it’s not needed, contributes to antibiotic resistance.
What is antibiotic resistance, and what causes it?
Antibiotic resistance is when bacteria adapt to antibiotics, rendering them ineffective. This arises from frequent or unnecessary antibiotic use. Responsible use is crucial, as resistant bacteria limit treatment options, resulting in severe consequences. In the United States, antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections cause 35,000 deaths and over 2.8 million illnesses annually.
Various factors contribute to antibiotic resistance, including patients not following instructions on how to take prescriptions or not finishing their antibiotic, unwarranted antibiotic prescriptions by healthcare providers, inadequate infection control including poor hygiene and sanitation practices and unnecessary antibiotic use in agriculture.
Why wouldn’t my provider give me a prescription when I was sick?
Some people get upset when their provider does not prescribe antibiotics, but he or she is doing that in your best interest when antibiotics will not be helpful. Unnecessary prescriptions can result in resistance and the disruption of normal body processes like the floral environment of your gut. This can ultimately result in more harm than good and lengthen the recovery period. The best approach for managing certain infections, like those caused by viruses, is by trying to prevent them in the first place with things like vaccination, masks and social distancing. If you do get an infection, most people will recover through rest and supportive care and do not require any medication outside of those used for symptom control.
How do I know if I need an antibiotic?
Your healthcare provider will determine whether you need an antibiotic based on your diagnosis. Many common illnesses are caused by viruses, and taking antibiotics for these infections can do harm. Some common conditions that are caused by bacteria that do require antibiotics are: strep throat, urinary tract infections and whooping cough.
Some common conditions that may require antibiotics are: sinus infections and middle ear infections.
Some common conditions that are caused by viruses and do not require antibiotics in otherwise healthy patients are: common colds, runny noses, bronchitis or chest colds, the flu and sore throats (that are not strep).
What are some ways to feel better when I don’t need antibiotics?
For viral infections, you can try over-the-counter medications (make sure you follow the directions carefully) while getting a lot of rest and drinking plenty of fluids. Upper respiratory infections (including sinus infections, ear infections, colds and bronchitis) can be soothed by drinking warm beverages, gargling with salt water, using saline nasal spray or drops and sucking on ice chips, popsicles or lozenges (for those not at risk of choking). Breathing in steam from a hot bowl of water or shower, taking an over-the-counter pain reliever or decongestant, and a warm, moist cloth over aching sinuses or ears is also recommended. Smoking and secondhand smoke should definitely be avoided. For coughs, humidifiers or vaporizers, breathing in steam, lozenges and honey may provide some relief. (Never give honey to a child under 1 year of age.)
Why is it important to complete the full course of antibiotics?
Completing your entire prescription is very important to make sure treatment is effective. Even if you no longer have symptoms, you should not stop taking your antibiotics as this could result in the bacteria not being completely eliminated. This can allow some of the bacteria to survive and multiply, leading to antibiotic resistance which will make the medication ineffective in the future. To avoid this, patients must ensure that they follow the advised plan of action and continue to take their medication even when symptoms have improved.
Why is it important to get the COVID/flu vaccine every year?
Viruses like the flu are constantly undergoing genetic changes that can alter the structure of the virus. These structures are detected by our immune system and trigger the body’s response to the virus. As such, global flu surveillance is conducted year-round to collect information with the aim of producing vaccines that are the most effective at covering the current strain that is circulating. Therefore, vaccines received in prior years or in other geographic locations will not provide the best protection against infection.
How can I protect myself from antibiotic resistance?
Protecting yourself from antibiotic resistance involves following instructions on how to take prescriptions, taking the full course even if you are starting to feel better and immediate reporting of side effects to healthcare providers. Talk to your doctor if you have any questions or develop side effects to your antibiotics, including diarrhea, as it could be a sign of infection. Your healthcare provider should prescribe you the shortest period of antibiotics needed. Combating resistance requires avoiding antibiotic sharing, practicing good hygiene and receiving recommended vaccinations, including the flu and COVID vaccines.
Collaboration between healthcare providers and patients in responsible antibiotic use is essential to reduce resistance-related deaths and ensure these life-saving medications remain effective for future generations.
This article contains general information only and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis, treatment or care by a qualified health care provider.