Fighting Infections Safely

Avoiding Antibiotic Overuse

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

This time of year, bugs and germs are front and center, and unfortunately bacteria thrive during the winter chill. So while we gather indoors to escape the frigid temperatures, cocoon on the couch and watch award shows and Monday night football, the transmission of bacteria between friends is almost a given. The end result: many Americans’ medicine cabinets are stocked with cold-busters, and yes, prescription antibiotics.

“Antibiotics work by either killing bacteria or decreasing the ability of the bacteria to grow and multiply,” says Suchitra Behl, M.D., an internal medicine physician at Henry Ford Health System. But too many of us take them for illnesses that aren’t caused by bacteria at all (antibiotics don’t work against viruses, which cause most colds and flu). And taking antibiotics when you don’t need them—and even when you do!—can lead to adverse reactions including nausea, fever, drug allergies, antibiotic-associated diarrhea and yeast infections. Yet each year in the United States, patients pick up nearly 50 million unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions.

To safeguard your health (and get well if you’re ill!), Dr. Behl offers these 7 strategies to minimize antibiotic overuse:

  1. Only ask for antibiotics when indicated. Antibiotics fight bacterial infections, not viruses. Beyond colds and flu, they’re also useless in the battle against most sore throats and bronchitis.
  1. Ask your doctor if you can get relief without antibiotics. Oftentimes, there are steps you can take to feel better without using antibiotics. Some sinus and ear infections can improve without antibiotic use, and even conditions like conjunctivitis (also known as pinkeye) may be viral rather than bacterial. In those cases, flushing the eye with saline solution for a few days may be all you need to resolve the problem.
  1. Get vaccinated. Ask your doctor if you’re up to date on your immunizations. If not, getting appropriately vaccinated could help you sidestep infections that require antibiotic treatment.
  1. Do not skip doses. For antibiotics to be effective, it’s important that you take the full course of treatment, without skipping any doses. Otherwise, a single bacterium (or more!) can survive and continue to cause infection and illness.
  1. Don’t keep unused antibiotics on hand. If you’re using antibiotics as directed, you shouldn’t have any leftover meds. But if you do end up with leftovers, you should never save them for later use. Antibiotics are carefully selected to target the type of bacteria you’re infected with at the time of illness. So, the drugs your doctor prescribed to treat an ear infection may not work for the strep throat you develop a year later. Even worse, they could delay appropriate treatment and give the bad bacteria more time to grow.
  1. Never take someone else’s antibiotics. Just as you shouldn’t use a previously prescribed antibiotic for a new and undiagnosed infection, you should never take someone else’s antibiotic medication. Not only do you run the risk of targeting the wrong bacteria, you could inadvertently create a drug-resistant infection by not killing it off with the right drugs.
  1. Protect your gut. Your intestines house more than 100 trillion types of bacteria—some good and some bad. The rub: Antibiotics wreak havoc on your gut’s healthy bacteria and that gives bad bugs an opportunity to run amok. In fact, many people suffer lasting changes to their gut flora as a result of taking antibiotics. Some studies suggest taking probiotic supplements during antibiotic treatment can lessen the ill effects on your gut flora and potentially boost your immunity in the process. Talk to your doctor before taking probiotic supplements since they may be harmful for people who have immune system deficiencies.

In addition to failing to obliterate a viral illness, taking antibiotics you don’t need can lead to antibiotic resistance. It’s not the person that becomes resistant to the drugs, but the bacteria. If even one bacterium becomes resistant to antibiotics, it can multiply and replace all the bacteria that were killed off. The end result: illnesses that were once easily treated with antibiotics no longer respond to the medications and instead lead to the development of persistent infections, or super bugs, that are tough to eradicate.

Always talk to your doctor to determine your best options for treating a virus or bacterial illness. Chances are good you may be able to sidestep antibiotics altogether.

To find a primary care doctor at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

Dr. Suchitra Behl sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Center – Fairlane in Dearborn.