The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has news for parents this cold and flu season: Antibiotics don’t work for a cold or the flu. Never have, never will.
Antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses. And colds, flu and most sore throats are caused by viruses. Antibiotics don’t touch viruses. And it’s not really news. It’s a long-documented medical fact.
But tell that to parents seeking relief for a child’s runny nose. Research shows that most Americans have either missed the message about appropriate antibiotic use or they simply don’t believe it. It’s a case of mistaken popular belief, winning out over fact. According to public opinion research, there is a perception that “antibiotics cure everything.”
Americans believe in the power of antibiotics so much that many patients go to the doctor expecting to get a prescription. And they do. Why? Physicians often are too pressured for time to engage in lengthy explanations of why antibiotics won’t work. And, when the diagnosis is uncertain, as many symptoms for viral and bacterial infections are similar, doctors are more likely to yield to patient demands for antibiotics. According to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 50 percent of people who visit their doctor for upper respiratory infections receive an antibiotic prescription.
The problem is taking antibiotics when they are not needed can do more harm than good.
The most obvious consequence of inappropriate antibiotic use is its effect on the sick patient. When antibiotics are incorrectly used to treat children or adults with viral infections, such as colds and flu, they aren’t getting the best care for their condition.
A less obvious consequence of antibiotic overuse is the boost it gives to drug-resistant disease-causing bacteria. Almost every type of bacteria has become stronger and less responsive to antibiotic treatment when it really is needed. These antibiotic-resistant bacteria can quickly spread to family members, school mates 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, antibiotic resistance is one of the world’s “most pressing public health problems.” Americans of all ages can lower this risk by talking to their doctors and using antibiotics appropriately during this cold and flu season.
So what should you do for colds and flu?
Children and adults with viral infections recover when the illness has run its course. Colds caused by viruses may last for two weeks or longer.
To feel better, increase fluid intake, use a cool mist vaporizer or saline nasal spray and soothe a soar throat with ice chips, spray or lozenges.
However viral infections may sometimes lead to bacterial infections. Patients should keep their doctor informed if their illness gets worse or lasts a long time.
Pharmacists around the nation are joining the CDC to educate consumers about the appropriate use of antibiotics during flu season. However, they do recommend treating a virus with Tamiflu, if caught in the first 24 hours, and Tylenol or Motrin to treat symptoms like fever and aches. The CDC encourages “patients and parents to talk to their pharmacists, as they are a great free resource for helpful information.”