Last week we learned about the "dreaded" common cold-- what is it and what can be done to treat it. This week we will concentrate more on what was touched on in the last blog, something that has been a bit of a hot topic in medicine the media in the last few years: antibiotics--when to use them and when are they not necessary. If you've heard in the media about topics such as MRSA, superbug infections, etc., then you may be already familiar with this subject. The development of antibiotics in the 1940’s is certainly one of the greatest advancements in medicine, but in recent years antibiotic overuse has become a serious healthcare concern. Antibiotics are more and more commonly being taken for infections that are known to be caused by viruses, such as the common cold.
So what is the harm in treating a viral infection like Rhinovirus (which usually causes the common cold) with an antibiotic? Many people believe that there are really no downsides to taking an antibiotic; if it helps, then great! If not, then symptoms will improve on their own. This is unfortunately very dangerous thinking. Every time we as practitioners prescribe an antibiotic, and you as a patient take it, the bacteria in your body build a reaction to the antibiotic--they try to fight it. As the bacteria evolve, this can lead the antibiotics to stop working effectively on the bacteria they designed to target.
A common example most are familiar with is the serious topic of MRSA infections. MRSA stands for Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus. Staph aureus is a common bacteria that is normally found on your skin, in your nasal passages, etc. This specific type of Staph described by the term MRSA refers to bacteria that have developed a resistance to the antibiotic methicillin (and others in the same class such as penicillins; drugs that have been used effectively for many, many years). We are now limited to just a few antibiotics that are still effective against this strain of bacteria. This is a very scary thought. Imagine if this scenario continues with this type of bacteria and others? Illnesses that would normally be fairly easy to cure, such as sinus infections, Strep throat, or skin infections without proper treatment could result in a person becoming very sick, and could possibly lead to death.
Not only does antibiotic overuse lead to drug-resistant superbug infections, but it also alters the normal bacteria in your body that help to keep you healthy. Furthermore, it contributes to unnecessary health care costs to pay for the antibiotic, and then pay for prolonged or more serious treatments in the future as antibiotic resistance emerges.
So then, when is it okay to take an antibiotic for the common cold? The answer is NEVER. When the common cold develops into a secondary bacterial infection such as some sinus infections, an ear infection or pneumonia - then an antibiotic could be administered. That is the responsibility of your healthcare provider to determine, and he/she will determine when an antibiotic is needed based on your history and physical. Remember, just because your doctor doesn't give you an antibiotic does not mean that you aren't sick!
If you're still reading, thank you! If you started skimming halfway through (I don't blame you!) then here is the bottom line: Antibiotics do NOT treat viral infections like the common cold and most upper respiratory infections, and can actually lead to harm if prescribed or taken unnecessarily. Please be proactive, take responsibility and join the discussion with your healthcare provider about what the Center for Disease Control (CDC) calls "one of the world’s most pressing public health problems."