Being down with an illness is tough. Missing work, juggling parenting responsibilities or making up for missed school time can be difficult and frustrating. Many times, patients take their health into their own hands by either taking medication that wasn’t prescribed, or not following instructions for prescribed medication. Neither scenario is without potential consequences, especially when antibiotics are involved. Misuse or overuse of antibiotics can lead to antibiotic resistance, rendering it less effective against combatting infection.
Important But Limited Role
We all know that antibiotics are required to fight infections; however, there is often confusion about what kinds of infections are best treated with antibiotics. Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections – not viral or fungal infections. This means that antibiotics are commonly used to treat things like urinary tract infections, some forms of pneumonia and strep throat.
Illnesses caused by viruses, like the common cold, acute bronchitis, most sore throats (with the exception of strep throat) and coughs, cannot be treated with antibiotics. These illnesses typically have to run their course or be treated preemptively with vaccination. This is why people take yearly flu vaccines. Because the flu is a viral infection, antibiotics won’t help to get rid of it.
Yeast infections are fungal, and, therefore, also cannot be treated with antibiotics. Instead, these are best treated with an antifungal medication.
Ear pain can be caused by either viruses or bacteria, so your physician must examine you in order to determine the best course of action to fight an ear ache.
Use as Directed
Another problem I frequently see is not taking antibiotics as directed or, even worse, people taking antibiotics when they’re not necessary.
Many times, patients stop taking their prescribed antibiotics when they start to feel better, even though they are instructed to take the entire cycle of antibiotics. They feel better, right? So the medicine has done its job and is no longer necessary, right? Wrong! Not taking a full cycle of antibiotics can result in a harder infection to fight if it comes back. As you take an antibiotic, the bacteria in your body causing the infection is slowly killed off. Taking the entire cycle of antibiotics ensures that all of the bacteria is killed. If you don’t finish the cycle, it could mean that some of the bacteria is not killed, but just suppressed. What that means is that the bacteria can grow stronger and become resistant to the medication used to treat it in the past. This is another reason it’s important to only take antibiotics that have been prescribed to you. Taking antibiotics that do not belong to you, or taking antibiotics that are not right for you, can lead to resistance to that antibiotic. This is essentially what happened with penicillin. It was prescribed for so many things and wasn’t taken correctly by so many people, that it has, in general, been rendered almost ineffective for most people.
Ultimately, if you’re sick, the best thing to do is make an appointment to see your doctor so they can help you get on the road to recovery. But after your appointment, it’s just as important to remember to follow their instructions regarding your recovery process to make sure that you’re completely well and reduce the risk of a relapse.
Dr. Puja Sehgal is a board-certified Family Medicine physician. She works with patients to give them knowledge regarding prevention and management of illness. She develops relationships with her patients by customizing their treatment based on their beliefs and cultural practices.