Know when to take antibiotics – and when Not to!

Feeling crummy? Think it’s the flu? Need some antibiotics for that? Probably not. In fact, antibiotics can actually do more harm than good. In the few decades since the discovery of penicillin, antibiotics have gone from last-resort “miracle drugs” to harmful overexposure

What’s the matter?

‘Tis the season for catching “what’s going around,” not because of the weather, but because you’re spending more time indoors. Most people are in close contact with others who have “what’s going around.” But do you have a cold, or is it the flu – or even allergies?

The flu is likely to hit quickly, in just a few hours. You may feel unusually tired, you could have chills and fever, a cough, and you’re likely to have aches and pains – a headache, a sore throat, muscle aches, or just hurt all over.

With a cold, you might have a cough, but the other symptoms are milder. You’re more likely to have a runny nose, sneezing, head and chest congestion, and be less able to smell and taste. And your cold will develop slowly, over two or three days.

And yes, it could be allergies. You might not think of winter as an allergy season, but staying indoors means more exposure to dust mites, wood smoke, and other allergens. Allergy symptoms are similar to colds, but you probably have less congestion in your chest, and you’re more likely to have itchy, watery eyes in addition to the runny nose.

To dose or not to dose?

Now that you’ve figured out what’s bugging you, what are you going to do about it?

If you’re pretty sure this is an allergy attack, stick with your usual treatments. Eliminate allergens as much as possible and then take whatever usually works, whether it’s an over-the-counter medication (OTC) or a prescription you take regularly.

If it’s a cold, you probably don’t need to see the doctor. Instead, here’s what to do:
  • Treat the symptoms – find an over-the-counter medicine for sneezing, congestion, and dripping

  • Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated and prevent mucus from building up

  • Wash your hands frequently, especially after you’ve sneezed or blown your nose, to get rid of the cold bugs right away

  • Stay at home to avoid sharing your cold and get extra rest so you’ll get well faster
If you think you have the flu, going to the doctor is a good idea if you can do it quickly. Several new antiviral medicines are available that can reduce the length of your illness by a day or more, as well as make you feel better. But they only work if you use them by the second day you’re sick and only if you have influenza, not a bad cold.

Whatever’s wrong, if you aren’t better in a few days, call your doctor. You might have a secondary infection, and your doctor may be able to help. If you have a secondary infection, you won’t just not get better – you’ll probably also get worse. Symptoms can be an earache, a really bad sore throat, or a high fever. Especially if you really do start feeling better and then get worse again, there’s a chance you have an infection that requires medical treatment.

“Super-bugs” and you

Two choices people have made over the years have contributed to the appearance of “super-bugs” – antibiotic-resistant infections that patients get on the heels of another illness: taking unnecessary antibiotics and not finishing prescriptions when they are needed. Super-bugs are the results of weakening the effects of antibiotics through over-use and strengthening bacteria by killing off the weakest ones but stopping the antibiotics before all bacteria are gone.

On an individual level, if you take antibiotics when you don’t have an infection, you risk your body building up resistance so they won’t work when you really need them. It’s even possible that overexposure will cause you to develop a new allergy to the very antibiotics you’re counting on to help you – a danger that’s life-threatening.

If your doctor does prescribe an antibiotic, take it as ordered. Even if you feel better in a few days, the infection can still be lurking. If you stop your medicine before you’ve finished the course, you’ve probably killed off the weaker bacteria, but the tough ones may still be there, hiding out and waiting for the antibiotic effect to wear off so they can attack again – and a “guerrilla bug” can be worse than the first round!

The bottom line

Antibiotics don’t work for colds or the flu. Don’t insist on them if your doctor says they’re not necessary. Instead, take care of yourself and know what to watch for so you’ll know when to call the doctor back.

Ref: Humana newsletter 2008