The goal of taking any medication is to feel better. But antibiotics aren’t always the answer.
Being "antibiotics aware" means understanding when antibiotics are helpful and when using them can introduce new threats to public health.
Antibiotics are appropriate to treat conditions that are caused by bacteria, such as strep throat.
When symptoms are caused by a virus—such as a sore throat, the flu or the common cold—antibiotics won't provide any relief.
Worse, the widespread overuse and misuse of antibiotics results in antibiotic resistance—where bacteria adapt and change, eliminating the effectiveness of medicines designed to kill them. The more prescriptions are written for antibiotics around the world, the more chance there is that some bacteria will develop antibiotic resistance.
Simply put, that means the bacteria can no longer be killed by an antibiotic and the condition becomes much more difficult to treat.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, more than 2.8 million infections and 35,000 deaths occur each year in the U.S. from antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
The tricky thing is that symptoms of infections caused by bacteria can be very similar to those caused by a virus.
“Not everyone with throat pain or ear pain has strep or a bacterial infection, many times it is a viral infection,” explained Robert Dums, M.D., of Carilion Clinic's VelocityCare. “That’s where the doctor’s examination comes in; that’s what we’re trained for, to identify the right course of treatment.”
So what can you do when you feel awful, but antibiotics aren't appropriate?
For illnesses caused by viruses, most of the time your best option is rest, lots of fluids and possibly an over-the-counter medication to manage pain, fever or cough.
But even when bacteria is causing the symptoms, antibiotics may not be a good idea. According to Dr. Dums, although the goal is to help patients feel better, sometimes the wait-and-see approach is the best option.
For example, some childhood ear infections, which are commonly treated with antibiotics, will actually clear up on their own. Treating the pain with acetaminophen or ibuprofen will help until the infection improves.
“In the first couple of days of an ear infection, antibiotics won’t help with pain anyway, and after that time most children will begin to feel better,” said Dr. Dums.
If symptoms don’t get better after two to three days, then it might be time to head back to the doctor’s office and talk about antibiotics.
Health care providers will always do their best to give you advice or medication that they think is going to work, but they only know what you tell them. To help your provider make the best decision, ask questions and be sure to provide all the information they need.
"Both health care workers and patients can work together to be stewards of appropriate antibiotic use and keep them as a vital resource for the future," said Nathan Everson, a clinical pharmacy specialist for infectious diseases who serves on Carilion Clinic's Antimicrobial Stewardship Team.
If your provider prescribes an antibiotic, ask the following questions:
- What are the side effects?
- How many days should you or your child take the antibiotic?
- What are some other ways to relieve symptoms?
And if you are given a prescription for an antibiotic, be sure to take every dose prescribed, even if you start to feel better. If you stop taking the antibiotic before the course is complete, you will only have eliminated the "weaker" bacteria, leaving the "stronger" bacteria an opportunity to adapt and become resistant.
Test your antibiotics awareness with the CDC's quiz common illness quiz.
Visit any Carilion Clinic Pharmacy to get advice on any of your family's prescriptions.