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With Antibiotics, Be Careful What You Ask For

Posted Aug 18 2010 8:54am

Since penicillin became available to the public in the mid-20th century, antibiotics have changed the face of health care. Infections that routinely were fatal 60 years ago are today little more than inconveniences.

Despite these amazing advances, we face critical problems: Bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to available antibiotics. One cause is the unnecessary use of antibiotics in minor respiratory infections. Next time you see your doctor for a cold or other minor respiratory infection, remember three things:


You may not need antibiotics.
Most upper respiratory tract infections—the common cold, minor sinus infections, and sore throats—are viral and do not respond to antibiotics. (The exception is strep throat, for which there are specific tests available.)

Studies show that we expect antibiotics and a quick fix when we go to the doctor's office for these problems. Unfortunately, physicians sometimes feel obliged to meet those expectations, even though these viral infections usually resolve in a few days without antibiotics.

Antibiotics can be associated with allergic reactions.
Sometimes those reactions can even be life-threatening. Even appropriate use of antibiotics can be associated with Clostridium difficile colitis, a secondary bacterial infection of the colon accompanied by severe diarrhea and fever, occasionally requiring hospitalization.

Antibiotics can also have important interactions with other medications, especially drugs like blood thinners and heart medications.

Taking unnecessary antibiotics can make you more susceptible to resistant bacteria.
Resistant bacteria can be more difficult and expensive to treat. Plus, patients can remain sick longer because of the delay in effective treatment. Children's ear infections, for example, can be hard to clear up, and we even encounter infections in hospitals for which there are no viable antibiotic options.

The next time you or your child goes to the doctor for a cold, remember that medicines to fight symptoms may be all you need. Don't be upset if your doctor doesn't write a prescription for an antibiotic. He or she may be doing you—and the rest of us—a favor.

For more information on antibiotic resistance, see the Centers for Disease Control's website .

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