Are Antibiotics the Answer?

April 3, 2019 by Kerri Maxcy PA-C

It is often confusing to understand the difference between viral infections and bacterial infections and what medications are appropriate for which.  When you go to the doctor because you are sick or don’t feel well, it is sometimes difficult to understand why an antibiotic may not be prescribed. 

Strep throat, urinary tract infections, and tuberculosis are examples of illnesses caused by bacteria.  The common cold and flu are caused by a virus.  Many things including sinus infections, bronchitis, and ear infections can be caused by either bacteria or viruses. 

In many cases, the symptoms caused by viruses and bacteria are very similar.  There are many things that we as providers look for to help determine what is the most likely cause of your symptoms.   

If we suspect a viral cause, the mainstay of treatment is adequate fluids, rest, and medications to help relieve the symptoms.  In some cases, such as the flu, we can prescribe an antiviral medication.  Your body’s immune system will work to eliminate the virus.  With viral infections, antibiotics are not beneficial and may do more harm than good. 

Why is it so important that we not prescribe antibiotics when they are not needed?  Bacteria are very adaptable and when exposed to an antibiotic, they can make adaptations that would make it resistant to the antibiotic in the future.  This is known as antibiotic resistance and can make infections more difficult to treat.  A very common example of this is methicillin-resistant staph aureus (MRSA), which became resistant to penicillin.  Now other types of antibiotics must be used to treat infections caused by MRSA.  There is also a risk of side effects when taking antibiotics, some of which can be serious.

Inappropriate use of antibiotics is a considered a serious public health problem by the Center for Disease Control (CDC).  They have estimated that as many as 1 in 3 antibiotics prescribed are not necessary.  Everyone plays a critical role in improving antibiotic use and preventing infections across health care.  Asking questions when you are at the doctor is a great place to start in doing your part to help combat this problem.

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