Ok, so they are if you have a bacterial infection of some kind, and that is it. Unfortunately, antibiotics do not help us get over viral infections. Fortunately, our bodies are well equipped to overcome most all of the common viral illnesses.
How can you tell the difference? Well, your medical provider should be able to discern the risk of viral versus bacterial based on your presentation to their office. Fortunately, for the medical providers, there is a wealth of information looking at millions of cases to give us reasonable guidelines to discuss with you to determine if antibiotics are indicated, and if it is safe to wait before trying antibiotics.
What are the common diagnoses that may not require taking antibiotics? The common cold, upper respiratory infections, bronchitis, pharyngitis(sore throat), laryngitis(lost your voice), sinusitis, influenza, and acute gastroenteritis(vomitting and diarrhea).
Let the list sink in for a moment. How many of you have had something off of the list and received an antibiotic for this? Some of you may have had multiple trips with multiple rounds of antibiotics, right? It may have been necessary in your circumstance, but the majority of the above mentioned list is viral. Some of them even up to 90% viral.
Let me digress for a moment. I grew up with severe allergies and asthma, and made many a trip to the doctor’s office at my mother’s insistence. If I had a sniffle, then I was seeing the doctor. She would request an antibiotic on most of those trips, and my friendly family doctor was happy to oblige most of the time. My mother believed with all of her heart that the antibiotics were necessary for me to get well in a timely manner. Once I went to college and medical school, of course I was exposed to new information. My nose ran and I coughed just as much. I have had just as many colds and cases of bronchitis, but I have only been on antibiotics maybe six times in the last 10-12 years.
What does it matter? Antimicrobial resistance is one reason. Resistance is when a bacteria or microbe becomes resistant to the medication that was commonly used for treatment. Most have heard of MRSA (“mersa”, or methicillin resistant Staph aureus, or just “Staph”) infections, and even know of someone that has had it. Well, this infection came about from the bacteria being repeatedly exposed to the same group of antibiotics. Inappropriate use of antibiotics most assuredly contributed to this situation. So, when we(physicians and providers) prescribe antibiotics for something more likely viral, the risk of resistance increases. When we(patients) take said antibiotic when the doctor said in the visit that the infection was likely viral, the risk also increases.
Finally, antibiotics are not without side effects and personal consequences. Even if you take an antibiotic a million times, that does not mean you will not develop an allergy or reaction the next time. Common side effects of most antibiotics include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, yeast infections, indigestion, rash, or dizziness. Some of the more serious reactions or effects include heart arrhythmias, increased risk of bleeding if on certain “blood thinners”, and even anaphylaxis or death. Also, there is a serious form of diarrhea caused by a toxin producing bacteria that results from being on antibiotics for other infections.
Why would you want to take antibiotics at all now, right? The purpose of this blog was to inform you the patient or concerned family member that antibiotics are not always necessary for common infections and to let people know that taking antibiotics are not without risk. Even further than that, I hope this stimulates patients to ask doctors if the antibiotic is necessary, and to let your provider know that you are willing to wait when reasonable and only take the antibiotics when appropriate.
P.S. – Moms everywhere: Thank you for wanting what is best for your kids, and doing the best you can with what you have available.
This article does not constitute medical advice for all circumstances and does not encourage waiting out infections without seeking professional examination or not taking medication prescribed by your health care provider. Only you and your health care provider can make those decisions.