It’s that time of year again—when colds, flu, bronchitis, sore throats and many sinus and ear infections start to surface at home, school and our workplaces. The tendency when someone gets sick these days is to presume they will need an antibiotic to get better. The facts are that taking antibiotics for colds and other viral illnesses not only won’t work; they can have dangerous side effects—over time. They could result in the development of resistant bacteria that don’t respond to antibiotics that may have worked in the past. Antibiotics that could be vital to recovering from a bacterial infection when you need them the most or are required to take increasingly higher doses of an antibiotic.
Antibiotic resistance is a widespread problem, and one that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US call "one of the world's most pressing public health problems." Bacteria that were once highly responsive to antibiotics have become more and more resistant. Among those that are becoming harder to treat are pneumococcal infections such as pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections and meningitis.
The Differences Between Bacteria and Viruses
Although bacteria and viruses are both too small to be seen without a microscope, they're as different as giraffes and goldfish. Website WebMD says it best: Bacterial and viral infections have many things in common. Both types of infections are caused by microbes -- bacteria and viruses, respectively -- and spread by things such as coughing and sneezing, contact with infected people, especially through kissing and sex, contact with contaminated surfaces, food, and water, contact with infected creatures, including pets, livestock, and insects such as fleas and ticks. But the infections are dissimilar in many other important respects, most of them due to the organisms’ structural differences and the way they respond to medications.
When do you ride out a cold or see a doctor?
While viruses and bacteria can cause similar symptoms, the concerns that suggest your infection is more serious, include fever and chills, muscle aches and pains, decreased appetite and overwhelming fatigue. These symptoms are more generalized and may need an expert opinion to decide how best to proceed. Symptoms such as a sore throat and swollen glands can occur with either bacterial or viral infections. If this infection/sore throat/flu like illness or cough is overwhelming and feels like the worst infection you can recall, go get checked by your health care professional! Or if you are not improving in a couple of days, with an easing up of symptoms, this may need further attention.
Taking Antibiotics Safely
So what should you do? To minimize the risk of bacterial resistance, keep these tips in mind:
- Take antibiotics only for bacterial infections. It's a good idea to let milder illnesses (especially those thought to be caused by viruses) run their course. This helps prevent antibiotic-resistant germs from developing. But leave it to your doctor to decide if an illness is "mild" or not.
- Remember: Antibiotics can only treat bacterial infection if taken for the full amount of time prescribed by the doctor
- And most important, never use antibiotics that have been lying around your home.
- Help fight antibiotic resistance by taking simple steps to prevent the spread of infections such as frequent hand washing and immunization such as a flu shot and pneumococcal vaccine.
- Ask your healthcare professional about over-the-counter treatment options that may help reduce symptoms.
- Drink more fluids.
- Get plenty of rest.
- Use a cool-mist vaporizer or saline nasal spray to relieve congestion.
- Soothe your throat with crushed ice, sore throat spray, or lozenges. (Do not give lozenges to young children.)
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