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When antibiotics aren’t the right answer

When your body aches, your head is stuffy, your throat is sore and you have a fever, hearing “I’m prescribing you an antibiotic” from your doctor is music to your fluid-filled ears. Yet not all illnesses are created equal and sometimes, what ails you just has to run its course.

Dr. Meghan Brewster, a Premier HealthNet physician who practices at Beavercreek Family Medicine said that while treating viral illnesses with antibiotics exposes patients to medication they don’t need and places them at risk for allergic reactions and unpleasant side effects of the medication, the bigger picture is that using antibiotics when it is not necessary can lead to antibiotic resistance – an issue addressed in a recent release by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

According to the CDC, every year in the United States at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, with at least 23,000 dying each year as a direct result of these infections. In addition, many more people die from other conditions that were complicated by an antibiotic-resistant infection.

How do bacteria become resistant?

The CDC explains that whenever bacteria are exposed to antibiotics, they (the bacteria) start to learn how to outsmart the drugs. Complicating things further is the fact that, not only do resistant bacteria have the ability to multiply, spread easily and quickly and cause severe infection, but they can also share genetic information with other bacteria, making that bacteria antibiotic resistant as well. Each time bacteria learn to outsmart an antibiotic, treatment options become more limited and the infections then pose a greater risk to human health.

Is it viral or bacterial?

Most illnesses are causes by two kinds of germs: viruses and bacteria. Antibiotics can cure infections caused by bacteria, but not ones caused by a virus.

“Viruses are protein entities that reproduce and cause infections — like a common cold — that your immune system typically takes care of on its own,” Dr. Brewster said. “Bacteria, on the other hand, are one cell organisms that can cause infections that a different part of your immune system can attack and get rid of and that will, in some incidences, need antibiotics to take care of it.”

Bacterial infections cause illnesses such as strep throat, some pneumonia and certain sinus infections. Viruses cause the common cold, most coughs and the flu. Antibiotics that are used for a virus will not cure the infection, make the person feel better or keep others from catching the illness, according to the CDC. Dr. Brewster said that with some illnesses, like a sinus infection, it can be difficult to distinguish whether it is viral or bacterial, which is why it is important to allow time to tell.

“There is definitely the misconception that an antibiotic will help a prolonged cold or illness,” she said. “Most of them are viral in nature and in five to seven days your body will take care of it and you will feel better. But if you come in to the doctor on day two and you get a five-day course of antibiotics and then you feel better by day seven you might think it was due to the antibiotic. Some people think an antibiotic is what they need whereas their body would have done what it was supposed to do all along.”

The best way to determine whether to see a doctor for a possible bacterial infection is if an illness has lasted longer than seven to 10 days or if a temperature of 101.4 degrees or higher is present.

Dr. Brewster said there has been increased awareness in recent years about antibiotics and it is something she makes a priority to discuss with her own patients.

“I try to make it a part of each visit,” she said. “I try to take a few minutes to explain, this is the point at which they will need an antibiotic and this is why they won’t need one.”

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