Carrie Kern, D.O.
Family Medicine, Primary Care
Have you ever left your health care professional'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 aren't alone. Millions of people visit their health care team each year looking for antibiotics to cure infections. The reality is that if you have a virus that cause illnesses like bronchitis, sinus infection and the common cold, you don't need antibiotics to get better.
Bacteria or virus: What's the difference?
Though both bacteria and viruses are germs too small to see with the naked eye and are spread in a similar way, the similarities end there. Bacteria are cells capable of surviving on their own. Viruses are not cells — they are even smaller particles that require a host, such as your healthy sinus or lung cells, to survive and multiply. This key difference is why antibiotics aren't effective against viruses.
How is it determined if a bacteria or a virus is causing an illness?
Determining whether bacteria or a virus has caused an infection can be difficult. Your health care team may run blood tests, collect a urine sample or perform a throat swab to help answer this question. The type of infection often is a clue.
For example, scientists know viruses cause bronchitis, so health care professionals no longer use antibiotics to treat it. Likewise, over 90% of sinus infections are caused by viruses. Antibiotics are typically not used to treat a sinus infection unless it lasts longer than 10 days without improvement. Your health care professional will evaluate, test and review your symptoms to be confident your infection is caused by a bacteria before prescribing an antibiotic.
Why aren't antibiotics used to help a person recover quicker?
The body needs time to fight an infection, whether bacteria or a virus causes that infection. After the infection is gone, the body needs additional time to recover.
If an illness does not improve with an antibiotic, this is an indication that the infection causing the illness is viral. Unless an illness becomes severe, additional antibiotics are not needed.
This may have you wondering why health care professionals don't prescribe antibiotics to help people recover quicker. The answer is trifold:
1. Antibiotics don't work for viruses.
Antibiotics work by destroying bacterial cell membranes and bacterial replication. Since viruses are not cells, they do not have cell membranes, so antibiotics are ineffective against 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 can cause diarrhea and nausea. Some antibiotics are hard on your kidneys, liver or other body parts. In certain instances, 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 a person gets an infection caused by a superbug, antibiotics don't work. Thousands of people die from these infections every year. Infants, young children and older adults are at greatest risk. These deaths are preventable — but only if antibiotics are used correctly.
Viral infections are as common as they are frustrating. Your body is designed to fight these infections. You can help your body heal and strengthen your immune system by getting plenty of rest, staying hydrated and eating healthy.
The next time you see your health care team for an infection, you have an opportunity to be a good steward of antibiotics. If your health care team determines that you don't need antibiotics, you can contribute to the greater good by avoiding unnecessary use of these medications for viral illnesses.