Commentary by Andrew McLaren, MD
We’ve read and heard about the serious healthcare issue of “antibiotic resistance” for years. What does it really mean, and what do we need to remember about antibiotics the next time a cold or sore throat strikes? First, it’s important to know what antibiotics treat – and what they don’t. Antibiotics kill bacteria and are effective in treating bacterial infections. They don’t kill viruses, which typically cause many common ailments, such as cold, flu and other viral illnesses.
If we continually take antibiotics for illnesses that won’t appropriately respond to them, these medicines may not work when we do need them because bacteria can develop resistance to them. It works like this. Every time we take antibiotics, there is a greater chance there will be some bacteria left behind that the medicine doesn’t kill. Over time, these bacteria become stronger and more antibiotic resistant. Thus, antibiotic overuse has the potential to create “super bugs” – illnesses we aren’t able to treat effectively with the antibiotics we have available.
Additionally, antibiotics have side effects, so using them wisely – and for the right reasons – is recommended. While many of the side effects are mild and don’t affect everyone, antibiotics can cause nausea and diarrhea and may make users more sensitive to sunlight. These medicines also kill most of the bacteria in the body that react to them – even the “good” bacteria that we need to maintain healthy systems. This can lead to complications, such as upset stomach, diarrhea and vaginal infections.
Because the human body has tremendous capabilities to heal itself, many common viral illnesses will eventually resolve without medications, and you’ll feel better. This is true for the majority of sore throat cases and even most cases of bronchitis. As always, consult your primary care doctor if you have an illness that lasts longer than a couple of weeks. Understanding the facts about antibiotics and working in partnership with your doctor, you’ll be better able to make the best decisions about when medications are needed to treat illness.
Andrew McLaren, MD, specializes in family medicine at IU Health Physicians Primary Care at IU Health North Hospital, 11725 N. Illinois St., Suite 595, Carmel. He may be contacted at 688-5522.