Are antibiotics really the answer?

If your throat’s sore, the usual self-diagnosis is that you’re getting a cold.

You may soldier on for a few days then head off to the doctor expecting – indeed, hoping – that you will be prescribed an antibiotic which will have you feeling better within hours.

But antibiotics are not a “cure all”. They can help fight bacterial infections, but they’re no good against viruses, so there’s every chance they won’t help your sore throat.

Antibiotics work by killing or disabling bacteria and most sore throats are caused by a virus.

Ninety per cent of bronchitis episodes are caused by a virus so an antibiotic is largely useless. Most sinusitis issues are caused by a virus, hence antibiotics won’t work. However, if your sinusitis returns or lasts more than a week or two, it’s possible an antibiotic will help.

Pneumonia, on the other hand, can be bacterial, so antibiotics are often necessary.

The over-use of antibiotics aids viruses to mutate and become resistant to the drugs. To address this, new ones have to be developed, which is so slow and costly that it rarely eventuates       .

In a 2016 study titled “First Australian Report on Antimicrobial Use and Resistance in Human Health”, the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care said Australia had higher rates of antibiotic use than many countries.

The report found: “On any given day in 2014, around 38 per cent of patients in Australian hospitals were receiving antimicrobial therapy. Around 23 per cent of these prescriptions were considered inappropriate, and around 24 per cent were noncompliant with guidelines.

“Prescriptions for surgical prophylaxis are a significant concern – this indication is the most common reason for prescribing antimicrobials in hospitals (13.1 per cent of all prescriptions), but also has the highest proportion of inappropriate use (40.2 per cent of prescriptions were deemed to be inappropriate).

“Antimicrobial prescribing is high in the community, with 46 per cent of Australians being dispensed at least one antimicrobial in 2014. High volumes of antimicrobials are prescribed unnecessarily for upper respiratory tract infections.”

Overseas studies show the problem also exists in the UK, the US and India. In the latter country, the prescription of millions of unapproved antibiotic cocktails has been slammed by UK health experts as undermining global efforts to control drug resistance. 

Regular use of antibiotics has been linked to an increased chance of liver damage, allergic reactions, chronic fatigue and a collapse of the body’s natural immune systems.

And then there is the rise of the “super bugs” – the bugs that are antibiotic resistant and have no known cure. Thousands of people worldwide are dying each year from antibiotic-resistant bacteria. 

If you are suffering any common infections – cold, flu, sore throat, a cough, ear infection, sinus infection or gastro issue – there’s a chance that an antibiotic won’t help.

You owe it to yourself to ask the right questions when it comes to any prescribed treatment. If an antibiotic is offered by your doctor, ask if it will really make a difference.

Ask if there might be an alternative treatment, such as a herbal supplement.

Ask whether rest and a bowl of chicken soup will be as beneficial in your recovery as any tablet because, hey, your grandparents probably swore by it.

Related articles:
Antibiotics and alcohol
Dangerous medication mix-ups
Superbugs a global problem

Janelle Ward
Janelle Ward
Energetic and skilled editor and writer with expert knowledge of retirement, retirement income, superannuation and retirement planning.
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