Winter has officially come to an end, but to those of us who ride the subway or work in busy offices, the sneezing and coughing associated with that season seem to still be following us. You do your best to take your vitamin C, get plenty of rest, drink plenty of fluids, but then it hits you – you get that little tickle in your throat and realize that the cubicle wall separating you and your sick co-worker could not protect you from their illness.
To get some relief, you may be inclined to request an antibiotic from your doctor. However, proper antibiotic use can be tricky and, if used incorrectly, can result in some unfortunate consequences. We’ve asked Dr. Edward Chapnick, Director of Infectious Diseases, to tell us the “Three Don’ts” of Antibiotic Use.
- Don’t Think of Antibiotics as a Cure-All
Many patients want to take antibiotics to treat viruses such as colds, coughs and the flu when they are not needed. “It is very important to realize that antibiotics work for bacteria. They have absolutely no affect on viruses,” explains Dr. Chapnick. Viral illnesses clear up in about seven days, regardless of antibiotic use. “Unfortunately, what ends up happening,” states Dr. Chapnick, “is that, when someone starts the medicine and the cold goes away, they attribute it to the antibiotic that they were prescribed.” The next time that person gets a cold, they’ll want an antibiotic because they think that medication caused their cold to go away the last time.
Many patients don’t see the harm in taking antibiotics even if they won’t really work for their particular sickness. “While antibiotics tend to be very safe as a whole, no medication is 100% safe,” warns Dr. Chapnick. Patients shouldn’t risk having an allergic reaction or a negative side effect, if they don’t need the medication.
Overusing antibiotics can also lead to resistant bacteria. Unfortunately, there is not one antibiotic that kills every type of bacteria. “Each antibiotic medication only works for a certain number of bacteria,” states Dr. Chapnick. “While an antibiotic will kill the germs it was formulated to treat, sometimes other bacteria resistant to that drug are present and can then proliferate.” When that happens, people can get infections with germs that are much more difficult to treat.
- Don’t Stop Your Treatment Short Even if You Feel Better
Depending on the condition with which you are diagnosed and the type of medicine prescribed, length of antibiotic treatment can vary. Often, patients will take their prescribed medication and their symptoms will subside within two to three days. Even though you feel better, it’s important to realize that the bacteria that caused the problem are still present. “Regardless of the correct course of treatment, not treating the condition for the prescribed period of time means that all the germs won’t be killed,” explains Dr. Chapnick. “If the infection isn’t eradicated, it will often come back – sometimes in the form of new bacteria against which the original antibiotic will no longer be effective.”
Dr. Chapnick also warns that taking antibiotics for an extended period of time without the approval of a physician can also lead to so-called “superbugs.” This is because the remaining bacteria are resistant to that particular antibiotic and are more likely to multiply and become predominant. “The best advice is to listen to your physician and pharmacist, and follow all of their directions when taking medication.”
- Don’t Save Antibiotics For Future Use in Case You Get Sick
Some people think it’s a good idea to either keep leftover antibiotics or an extra bottle of antibiotics in the medicine cabinet to take the next time they may become sick. Dr. Chapnick discourages this practice, emphasizing that “many medications are not properly stored within the home and, if kept too long, will expire and no longer be effective.”
Also, since we may be unaware of the cause of our cough – whether it’s result of a virus or bacteria – we may be taking an unnecessary or incorrect drug. “Even more dangerous,” continues Dr. Chapnick, “a patient may have been put on another medication since the antibiotic was originally prescribed which may negatively interact with the antibiotic and make it dangerous to the individual, even though it was safe when it was originally prescribed.”
Be smart and safe about antibiotic use. Follow these “don’ts” to help curb the problem of drug resistant bacteria and reduce the likelihood of adverse drug reactions.