Carrie Kern, D.O.
Have you ever left your health care provider’s office feeling frustrated that you didn’t get an antibiotic for a sinus infection, sore throat, or ear infection? If you answered yes, you are not alone. Each year, millions of people visit their provider looking for antibiotics to cure infections. The reality is that most of these illness are caused by viruses and do not need antibiotics to get better. This includes the common cold, sore throats that are not caused by Strep, most coughs, bronchitis, ear infections and sinus infections. Yes, I said ear infections and sinus infections!
How can my doctor tell whether my illness is caused by a virus or bacteria? Though there is no easy way to tell for sure, infections caused by bacteria often take on certain characteristics. They tend to last longer, cause a fever of 100.4 degrees or greater, and may make people sick enough to be hospitalized. Evidence shows that infections lasting 10 days or longer are more likely caused by bacteria, and infections lasting less than that are caused by viruses.
At this point, you might be shaking your head in disbelief, or asking “How can that be?” You might even wonder why your doctor isn’t treating you “just in case.” After all, 10 days is a long time to wait when you are feeling ill. The answer is tri-fold:
1. Antibiotics don’t work for viruses. Most of the time, these common infections are caused by viruses. Antibiotics work by destroying bacterial cell membranes and bacterial replication. Since viruses don’t have these components, antibiotics do nothing to fight them.
2. Antibiotics have side effects. If you take antibiotics for a viral infection, you are putting yourself at risk for side effects. All antibiotics may cause diarrhea and nausea. Some are hard on your kidneys, liver or other body parts. Some side effects can be life threatening, such as an allergic reaction. Every antibiotic can have side effects.
3. Using antibiotics to treat viruses causes superbugs. Superbugs are bacteria that become resistant to antibiotics. This happens when antibiotics are inappropriately used to treat viral infections. When someone gets an infection caused by a superbug, antibiotics don’t work. Thousands of people die from these infections every year. Infants, young children and elderly are at greatest risk. These deaths are preventable – but only if antibiotics are used correctly.
The next time you see your provider for an infection, try to be a good steward of antibiotic use. If he or she determines that you do not need antibiotics, realize the greater impact you have by avoiding these medications for viral illnesses.