When antibiotics do more harm than good

When a cold, flu or other illness is wearing you down and you want to get better fast, is an antibiotic the answer? Generally not, say most medical experts.

“In fact, an antibiotic could do more harm than good,” says Dr. Shane Brooks, a clinical care director for MultiCare Urgent Care. “When you visit a MultiCare Indigo Urgent Care clinic, you may not be given an antibiotic — and for good reason.”

Antibiotic resistance is a growing public health threat in the United States and across the globe, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). More and more people are facing this issue. Last year, in fact, more than 20,000 people died because the antibiotic(s) they were given for their illness couldn’t beat the germ they were designed to kill.

What exactly is antibiotic resistance?

“When bacteria, or germs, defeat the antibiotic medication that was designed to stop their growth, it’s called antibiotic resistance,” Brooks said.

TheCDC recommends that medical providers only prescribe an antibiotic for conditions that require it. Pneumonia and urinary tract infections (UTI) are examples of illnesses that usually require antibiotics.

Other conditions, those that are likely viral, typically don’t require an antibiotic. “When this happens,” said Brooks, MultiCare Indigo providers educate patients and their families about why an antibiotic isn’t the best treatment.”

Some examples of viral conditions that don’t require antibiotics include flu, sore throat (unless it’s strep throat), common colds and runny nose, and bronchitis.

“Colds and bronchial conditions can hang on for weeks sometimes, which can be very annoying,” Brooks said. “It’s hard to be patient when we don’t feel well. But it’s also a good idea, whenever possible, to let our bodies do what they’re supposed to do and fight off the cold or bronchial condition naturally.”

It doesn’t mean you won’t get an antibiotic if you need it. There are some illnesses that fall into a gray area, including sinus infections and ear infections. In these cases, a medical provider will consider whether other treatments such as flushing the sinuses, home remedies and over-the-counter medications will help clear the infection, without prescribing an antibiotic. Sometimes, a steroid can be prescribed for a bad cough or for a sinus infection because decreasing inflammation can be very beneficial and relieve unpleasant symptoms for many people.

Whether your symptoms follow these criteria or not, it’s important to share your complete story with your provider. Be sure to communicate what’s the most bothersome part of your illness and ask any questions you may have.

There are steps you can take to avoid illness this time of the year:

  • Get your flu shot.
  • Wash your hands.
  • Avoid people who may be sick or have a cold.
  • If you have a bad cold or the flu, stay home from work or school.

Source: MultiCare Health System.