Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention promoted its educational campaign to Get Smart About Antibiotics.
This topic has never been more timely: The problem of resistant bacteria is becoming common. It is especially important to understand, during this traditional season for viral illness, the use of antibiotics, which do not treat viral illnesses.
We are fortunate to live in the antibiotic era of medicine. The discovery and broad development of miracle drugs in the last century, combined with the development of protective vaccines, have substantially reduced disability and death from infectious illness. Yet the overuse of important medications threatens to reverse this trend as many bacteria are developing resistance to them.
Once-rare strains of resistant skin bacteria known as methicillin-resistant staph aureus, are becoming common as they circulate in a community often producing skin- and soft-tissue infections as well as more serious infections among those with weakened immune systems.
Awareness about the limitations and proper use of antibiotics is the responsibility between patients and their health-care providers. Physicians who are educated in the diagnosis of infectious illness and indications for antibiotic use should educate patients about the proper use of these medications. Patients are encouraged to familiarize themselves with antibiotic benefits and risks, and to follow their providers advice about proper use of these medications. This includes following recommended dosing schedules, including frequency and duration, for prescribed antibiotics as well as avoiding self-treatment with leftover antibiotics or antibiotics prescribed for someone else. It is also not wise to demand antibiotics when the doctor says they are not needed and not to take antibiotics for common viral illnesses such as a cold.
It is important to understand that many common infections ranging from colds, most sore throats and bronchitis, and some ear infections, are caused by viruses that dont respond to antibiotics. Antibiotic use for such infections is not only not helpful but can be harmful by potentially producing resistant bacteria that can cause future illness.
Just because antibiotics arent necessary doesnt mean that nothing can be done to treat common viral infections. The CDC campaign Get Smart About Antibiotics includes guidance about symptom control. Simple measures include: increasing fluid intake, getting plenty of rest, and using a cool-mist vaporizer or saline nasal spray to relieve congestion. People with a viral infection should also speak with their health-care provider or pharmacist about available over-the-counter medications to combat cold symptoms. However, be aware that many such medications should not be used in young children because of safety concerns and lack of effectiveness.
Rarely, a bacterial infection such as pneumonia can complicate a viral infection. People with severe or worsening symptoms should consult with a health-care provider. Judicious use of antibiotics, when they are indicated to treat bacterial infection, is still important. Avoiding antibiotic use when not needed helps keep this option open.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Health Center in Towaoc.