November 18-24 is Antibiotic Awareness Week. Antibiotics save countless lives every year, and have been one of the most significant developments in the medical field in the last century. However, using them too frequently or when not needed can have serious consequences. Dr. Raghavendra Tirupathi, Medical Director of Keystone Infectious Diseases, shares some important information about how to protect yourself by using antibiotics safely.
What are antibiotics?
Antibiotics are medicines that help to stop infections caused by bacteria by killing the bacteria or by stopping bacteria from reproducing. Many times when people are sick, they expect their medical provider to prescribe them an antibiotic. For certain types of infections, antibiotics are extremely effective. However, antibiotics can only treat bacterial infections; they do not help infections caused by viruses. If you take antibiotics when they not necessary, it can lead to antibiotic resistance.
What is antibiotic resistance?
Antibiotic resistance is when bacteria change or adapt to the antibiotic, meaning the antibiotic will no longer be helpful against the virus. This is usually caused by using antibiotics too often or when they are not needed.
Using antibiotics responsibly could save your life. When bacteria become resistant to certain antibiotics, there are fewer options to treat deadly infections. Even minor infections can have fatal outcomes when effective antibiotics aren’t available. In the United States, antibiotic resistant bacterial infections lead to 23,000 deaths and more than 2 million illnesses annually.
What causes antibiotic resistance?
Some of the main causes of antibiotic resistance are: patients not taking antibiotics as prescribed or taking someone else’s antibiotics, healthcare providers prescribing antibiotics when they are not needed, patients not finishing their entire dosage of antibiotics, poor infection control in hospitals and clinics, unnecessary antibiotic use in agriculture and poor hygiene and sanitation practices.
How do I know if I need an antibiotic?
If you are ill and think an antibiotic may be necessary, always consult your healthcare provider and let them make that decision. 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 are: common colds, runny noses, bronchitis or chest colds in otherwise healthy patients, the flu and sore throats (that are not strep).
What are some ways to feel better when I don’t need antibiotics?
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. 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 using saline nasal spray or drops, avoiding smoking and secondhand smoke, 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.
For sore throats, try drinking warm beverages, gargling with salt water, using sore throat spray, and sucking on ice chips, popsicles or lozenges (for those not at risk of choking). 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.)
What can I do to protect myself from antibiotic resistance?
If your provider does prescribe you antibiotics, make sure you are closely following the directions. Finish the entire dosage, even if you are starting to feel better. Your healthcare provider should prescribe you the shortest period of antibiotics needed. 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.
To combat antibiotic resistance, people should never share antibiotics, should practice good hygiene (wash your hands frequently, cover coughs, stay home when sick, etc.) and get recommended vaccinations, including the flu vaccine.
If healthcare providers and patients work together to use antibiotics responsibly, we can cut down the number of deaths from resistance and can assure these life-saving medications will be available to future generations. Please do your part in our battle against antibiotic resistance.
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.