Get smart about when to use antibiotics. They don’t always help.

The crud is creeping through our communities, and it’s tempting to insist on antibiotics when you or your children are sick. Most of us know that getting a test for strep throat can help decide whether antibiotics are needed. With strep throat, antibiotics not only shorten the time you are contagious, but they can also prevent some nasty complications, such as rheumatic fever. Even so, taking antibiotics when they won’t help is causing major public health implications because bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics.

Antibiotics should only be used to fight bacterial infections. They don’t work on viruses, so taking them for a cold or the flu, viral bronchitis, and many sinus and ear infections can cause more harm than good.

If antibiotics are not recommended, then treat the symptoms and keep the patient as comfortable as possible. Ask about over-the-counter medication that might help, and have the sick person drink lots of fluids. This is such a hard thing with our culture of work, but the best thing you can do in most cases is to go home and rest or keep your kids home from school and daycare so they can rest. 

A Q&A about antibiotics:

How common are germs that are antibiotic-resistant?  

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 2 million people in the U.S. get antibiotic-resistant infections, and at least 23,000 die from those infections each year. Some drug-resistant bacteria you may have heard of include strains of salmonella, strep, E. Coli and gonorrhea.

How does the resistance happen?

Resistance happens as bacteria evolve. When a person takes antibiotics, the medication kills all the bacteria in the body, both the good and the bad that is causing the illness. Bacteria that survive are drug-resistant and can spread easily.

Who is most at risk?

Most drug-resistant infections happen in the general community. People infected with drug-resistant organisms are more likely to have longer, more serious infections that might even end in death. Most of the deaths related to antibiotic resistance happen in places like hospitals and nursing homes.

Are there other health affects besides the danger of super germs?

Since antibiotics kill both your good and bad bacteria, there is growing concern that overuse could permanently change the beneficial bacteria that help us digest food or boost our immune systems. If you or your child must take antibiotics, it is recommended that you help replenish your good bacteria by eating yogurt that contains live, active cultures or taking a probiotic supplement.

What can we do to protect ourselves?

The most important thing is to listen to your doctor. Don’t take antibiotics unless you have a bacterial infection. Avoiding infection in the first place reduces the likelihood that you’d need antibiotics, so keep your immunizations up to date and wash your hands with soap and water before eating and after using the bathroom or handling uncooked food. Following safe food handling practices also helps.

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