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Sharp Health News

Antibiotics: when less is more

Feb. 9, 2016


Does this sound familiar? Your throat is scratchy, your nose is stuffed and you just feel downright rotten.

You go to the doctor and ask for medicine to make you feel better. The doctor explains that what is ailing you is caused by a virus, which can't be treated with an antibiotic. And taking antibiotics for nonbacterial infections may actually cause serious problems down the road.

Antibiotics are strong medicines that can kill bacteria. But because we have overused antibiotics for many years, we now have bacteria that resist antibiotics. These resistant bacteria, sometimes called superbugs, are more difficult to cure and expensive to treat than regular bacteria.

Now, two prominent health organizations are joining the fight against over-prescribed antibiotics — a fight Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group has been leading here in Southern California for the past six months. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American College of Physicians recently published new guidelines aimed at curbing the overprescription of antibiotics for viral infections such as bronchitis and sinus congestion.

Sharp Rees-Stealy is the only medical group in Southern California to participate in the Choosing Wisely® campaign, an initiative of the ABIM Foundation. Reducing the use of antibiotics in adults with bronchitis is a major focus of Sharp Rees-Stealy's efforts.

"Sometimes you need antibiotics to prevent or treat an infection. But half of antibiotics prescriptions are not needed. Over the years, we have developed antibiotic-resistant infections that can strike anyone, such as MRSA, which causes skin infections. Additionally, taking antibiotics makes you more likely to get a resistant infection in the future and treating those resistant infections usually means expensive drugs, additional medical care and in some cases, long hospital stays," says Dr. Parag Agnihotri, medical director, continuum of care, at Sharp Rees-Stealy.

Dr. Agnihotri recommends doing what you can to avoid infections in the first place. Most importantly, wash your hands. If you do end up with a nasty cold or even bronchitis, talk to your doctor about whether you really need that antibiotic or if old-school remedies such as bed rest, plenty of fluids and chicken soup will help you get back on your feet now and stay healthy in the future.

Here are some recommendations from national medical organizations on curbing the overuse of antibiotics.

For a sinus infection

The problem: Sinusitis is usually caused by a virus. Symptoms include a stuffed-up feeling, a runny nose and pain in the face. Even when bacteria are the cause, the infections usually clear up on their own in about a week.

Consider antibiotics only if:

  • You don't get better after 10 days.
  • You get better and then worse again.
  • You have a high fever and thick, colored mucus for three or more days in a row.

Sources: American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology; American Academy of Family Physicians

For children's sore throat, cough and runny nose

The problem: Different conditions need different treatments. Colds, flu and most other respiratory infections are caused by a virus, but antibiotics don't kill viruses. Bronchitis is usually caused by a virus or an irritant in the air like cigarette smoke.

Strep throat is caused by bacteria. Symptoms include fever, redness in the throat and trouble swallowing, but most children with those symptoms do not have strep throat. Your child should get a strep test before taking antibiotics.

Consider antibiotics if:

  • A cough doesn't get better in 14 days.
  • The doctor diagnoses a bacterial illness, like strep throat.

Source: American Academy of Pediatrics

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