November 26, 2012

Imagine lying on the couch. Your body is aching. Your nose is red and sore from the giant box of Kleenex that you’ve gone through in just the last two days. Your head aches and you’re starting to cough. In short, you feel lousy.

The temptation is great to pick up the phone and call the doctor and ask for antibiotics. The good news is, what you have will probably go away with lots of rest, plenty of fluids, and a little time. The bad news is that you likely have an illness caused by a virus, and if you take antibiotics for a virus, you may be doing more harm than good.

Multnomah County Health Officer Dr. Gary Oxman says antibiotics are the most important tool in combating life-threatening bacterial infections like strep, meningitis, and whooping cough. However, they do not work on viruses. If you have a virus like a common cold, the flu or bronchitis, antibiotics won’t make you feel better faster and they can’t make the virus go away.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the overuse of antibiotics has increased the development of drug-resistant germs – germs that cannot be readily killed by antibiotics. In the last 20 years, antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria have spread throughout the U.S. and around the world.

The CDC cites antibiotic resistance as one of its top concerns. “Almost every type of bacteria has become stronger and less responsive to antibiotic treatment when it is really needed. These antibiotic-resistant bacteria can quickly spread to family members, schoolmates, and co-workers - threatening the community with a new strain of infectious disease that is more difficult to cure and more expensive to treat,” according to the CDC. Because of antibiotic resistance, common infections that were once easily treatable with antibiotics can become difficult to treat and cause severe illness and even death.

Antibiotic resistance happens when bacteria change in some way that reduces or eliminates the effectiveness of drugs that once worked. When antibiotics are not used in the right way, we give bacteria the chance to survive, become antibiotic resistant, and cause more harm.

We can all do our part.

Oxman urges following these guidelines:

  • When you are sick, talk with your provider about whether antibiotics are the right choice.
  • If you are prescribed antibiotics, take them as prescribed. Keep taking them until your course is finished, even if you feel better.
  • Make sure your children take all antibiotics as prescribed, even if they feel better.
  • Throw away any leftover medication once you have completed your prescription. Don’t save it for another time.
  • Don’t share your antibiotics with others. Antibiotics can cause dangerous side effects in some people.
  • Practice everyday prevention to keep from getting sick – wash hands frequently, cover coughs and sneezes and stay home when sick.

“It is important that we use antibiotics properly, or they might not work when we really need them to,” Oxman says.

Learn more
Oregon AWARE (Alliance Working for Antibiotic Resistance Education) urges Oregonians to learn more about safe antibiotics use on the Oregon Health Authority's website. The CDC also offers information on its Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work webpage.