What is antibiotic resistance?

This cold and flu season, Dr Boyden explains why overuse of antibiotics can do more harm than good.

Written by Dr Andrew Boyden

It’s cold and flu season – and we’ve all been there. The annoying tickle in the back of your throat that quickly turns into a streaming nose, annoying cough and a head as heavy as a bowling ball. Many people think that taking a course of antibiotics can help to minimise symptoms or get them back to work faster. However this line of thinking can in fact cause more harm than good.

Myth: I feel really ill from this cold or flu, so I must need antibiotics to get better

Antibiotics are medicines for treating infections caused by bacteria. The common cold and flu are caused by viruses, so antibiotics will not have any effect on these conditions.

So, while symptoms of a cold or flu leave most of us feeling pretty miserable, for people who are generally healthy, their immune system will be strong enough to fight the virus causing the infection and their symptoms will usually clear up on their own. However, for some people with the flu – who have an underlying chronic health condition where the risk of a secondary bacterial infection is higher – an antibiotic may be prescribed by their doctor.

You can help by trying to rest, keeping warm, and drinking plenty of water and non-alcoholic fluids. This will help you recover and prevent dehydration.

Some medicines can help relieve certain symptoms such as pain, fever or nasal congestion, although care should be taken to consider factors like age and health conditions. For example, cough and cold medicines should not be given to children under 6 years old, and always ask for advice from a health professional before giving cough and cold medicines to children aged 6 to 11 years.

Myth: If I ask for antibiotics, my doctor should prescribe them

Since their discovery early last century, antibiotics have helped millions of people lead healthier lives, because of their ability to treat a range of bacterial infections.

However, over-reliance and use of these important medicines when they are not needed has lead to increasing levels of antibiotic resistance – where standard treatments no longer work and bacterial infections become harder to control.

If you are concerned about your symptoms see your doctor, but don’t be disappointed if you don’t receive a prescription. Your doctor will only prescribe antibiotics when they are needed to fight a bacterial infection.

This not only helps you to avoid potential side effects of antibiotics, like diarrhea and rashes which occur in some people, but also helps to ensure that antibiotics are more likely to be effective when you really need them to work for you.

Myth: I have green mucous – I need antibiotics, STAT!

This popular belief is a myth, as yellow-green nasal discharge can occur with viral infections as well.

Commonly, respiratory infections go through a stage where the mucous turns green which shows that your body’s immune system is fighting the infection.

Myth: I can use my leftover antibiotics later — or in case someone else in my family gets sick

It is important that people understand that antibiotics are prescribed to treat a specific bacterial infection. Using leftover medicines might not work against your current illness and could actually make it worse by delaying correct treatment, or by causing unnecessary side effects.

If you do end up with unused antibiotics after taking a course of antibiotics as prescribed by your doctor, or any other unused prescription medicine, take them back to your pharmacist who can dispose of them correctly.

Simple ways to prevent infection

Research has shown there are some very simple but very effective ways to avoid catching, or spreading, a chest (or respiratory tract) infection – even serious ones.

  • Stay at home if you are unwell.
  • Use a tissue when coughing or sneezing, then throw it away.
  • Wash your hands with soap and running water, particularly after coughing or blowing your nose, and before preparing or eating food.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Don’t share cups, glasses and cutlery.
  • Keep household surfaces clean.
  • People (especially those at high risk of complications) should also consider a flu vaccination each year to protect against the infection.

If a cold or flu strikes you or a family member this winter, spread knowledge, not infection, and help preserve the miracle of antibiotics for future generations.

Learn more about antibiotic resistance at nps.org.au/antibiotics

Written by Dr Andrew Boyden

NPS MedicineWise clinical advisor Dr Andrew Boyden has worked in various health advisory and management roles with both government and non-government organisations.

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