Fall and winter is a time notorious for sickness. It can be very
confusing and frustrating to know when to take your child or yourself to see
your health care provider. And then you make an appointment, only to be told
“It’s just a virus”. How many times have we heard this? It is never
wrong to make an appointment to see your health care provider. So, when do you
need an antibiotic? Why are health care providers hesitant to prescribe
antibiotics? These questions, I will attempt to answer here.
What Is An Antibiotic?
Antibiotics are in the class called antimicrobials. They are
drugs that destroy bacteria. These kinds of medications do not kill viruses. A
bacterium is a residing, reproducing life form. A virus is just a piece of DNA
(or RNA). A virus injects its DNA into a residing cell and has that cell
reproduce far more of the viral DNA. With a virus there is practically nothing
to “eliminate,” so Antibiotics really don’t work on it. (Stay with me – this is
There are quite a few types of antibiotics. Just about every one
operates in a slightly different way and acts on unique types of bacteria. Some
antibiotics are successful towards only specified types of bacteria; some
others can proficiently combat a huge collection of bacteria.
While the use of antibiotics did not start in the twentieth
century, early forms medication incorporated the use of moldy foods or soil for
infections. In historical Egypt, for illustration, infections were treated by
having the patient eat moldy bread. Maybe not appetizing, but it worked!
There are quite a few classes of antibiotics. Some are
considered broad spectrum and others are considered narrow spectrum. A broad
spectrum antibiotic is one that can eliminate various types of bacteria. A
narrow spectrum antibiotic is one that kills only a tiny collection of germs.
This helps a health care provider prescribe the correct antibiotic, when
When Do I Need An Antibiotic?
It is not always easy to know if an antibiotic is needed to the
lay person. Health care providers learn techniques of assessing this need.
While it would not be useful for me to explain exactly what we look for in
treating with antibiotics, but explaining why we use antibiotics may be more
The answer depends on what is causing your infection. The
following are some basic guidelines:
Colds and flu.
Viruses cause these illnesses. They can’t be cured with antibiotics.
Cough or bronchitis.
Viruses almost always cause these. However, if you have a problem with your lungs
or an illness that lasts more than one week, bacteria may actually be the
cause. Your health care provider may decide to try using an antibiotic.
Sore throat. Most sore throats are
caused by viruses and don’t need antibiotics. However, strep throat is caused
by bacteria. Your health care provider can determine if you have strep throat
and can prescribe an antibiotic.
Ear infections. There
are several types of ear infections. Antibiotics are used for some (but not
all) ear infections.
Sinus infections. Antibiotics
are often used to treat sinus infections. However, a runny nose and yellow or
green mucus do not necessarily mean you need an antibiotic.
Skin Infections. Cuts
and scrapes usually do not require antibiotics. But, if the area becomes red,
swollen or pus-filled, then antibiotics are warranted.
Because antibiotics are used a lot (and sometimes are used
inappropriately) antibiotic resistance is becoming a common problem in many
parts of the United States. It occurs when bacteria in your body change so that
antibiotics don’t work effectively to fight them anymore. This can happen when
bacteria are repeatedly exposed to the same antibiotics or when bacteria are
left in your body after you have been taking an antibiotic (such as when
someone does not take the full course of their antibiotic medicine). These
bacteria can multiply and become strong enough to resist the antibiotic in the
If you take antibiotics that cannot fight the bacteria they are
supposed to kill, your infection can last longer. Instead of getting better,
your infection might get worse. You might have to make several visits to your
doctor’s office. You might have to take different medicines or go to a hospital
to get stronger antibiotics given intravenously (through an IV into your vein).
At the same time, your family members or other people you come
into contact with will be exposed to the resistant bacteria you have. Then
these people might also develop infections that are hard to treat. It can be
detrimental for chronically ill, young children and elderly
Every time you take antibiotics when you don’t need them or you
do not take all of the antibiotics recommended by your doctor, you increase the
chance that you will someday get an illness that is caused by resistant
How to Properly Take Antibiotics:
If you are prescribed an antibiotic:
- take the medication as prescribed,
- take all your medication until it is gone,
Do not take antibiotics that is not prescribed for you or is
Diarrhea is a side effect – DO NOT stop antibiotics just because
you develop diarrhea, call your health care provider.
So, if you become ill never hesitate to see call and see your
health care provider. They can examine you, and decide if antibiotics are
appropriate. Remember, hydration is the key. So, even if you do not feel like
eating, continue to drink fluids.