Do I need antibiotics?

When you don’t feel good, the last thing you want to hear is, “Let your illness run its course.”  We want a drug to take care of it, allowing us to be back on our feet and back on the job.  Why are some illnesses treated with medication and others are not?  The answer lies with the definition of bacteria and virus.

Bacteria are single-celled “living” microorganisms that reproduce by dividing.  Most bacteria can live on any surface, including places like countertops and keyboards.  Not all bacteria are harmful; in fact, many are helpful by keeping the harmful bacteria at bay.  However, when harmful bacteria enter your body, they can make you sick.

Viruses are “non-living” organisms that need a host (you) to multiply.  They cannot survive on non-living surfaces such as toilet seats and telephones.  Many viruses are spread through body fluids or travel through the air.  When a virus enters your body, it invades cells, re-directing them to reproduce the virus instead of a healthy cell.  The virus may eventually kill the host cell.  With both viral and bacterial infections, some are contagious, others are not.

This information is important to know when it comes to treatment; what kills bacteria will not be effective against a virus.

Antibiotics (what patients generally hope for when visiting the doctor) will only kill bacterial infections.  They will have no effect on a virus, and can be harmful if taken unnecessarily.  In fact, overuse of antibiotics can lead to resistance, leaving no defense against harmful bacteria.  Some antiviral medicines exist, but very few.

Antibiotics can only be prescribed by your health care provider.  Other medications are available over-the-counter to treat the symptoms of a virus.  Some guidelines to follow regarding common illnesses are:

  • Colds and Gastroenteritis (stomach flu).  These are caused by viruses.  The body will overcome these infections.  Antibiotics are ineffective.
  • Cough or bronchitis.  These are usually caused by viruses.  However, if you have a problem with your lungs or the illness lasts for an extended period of time, it may be caused by bacteria.
  • Sore throat.  Most sore throats are caused by a virus.  Strep throat, however, is caused by bacteria.  A throat swab and lab test will help your health care provider determine the appropriate treatment.
  • Ear infections.  There are several types of ear infections – they are not all treated with antibiotics.
  • Sinus infections.  Antibiotics are generally used to treat sinus infections.  But, a runny nose does not mean you need an antibiotic, and does not mean you have a sinus infection.

Bottom line, if you are concerned about your condition, see you primary care provider.  Only they can determine the right treatment for you.

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