At the first sign of winter coughs and colds should you make a beeline for the GP for antibiotics?
According to research by the Department of Health, 65 per cent of Australians believe taking antibiotics will help them recover from cold and flu more quickly.
Turns out they are wrong. So wrong.
While antibiotics are incredibly effective at fighting infection caused by bacteria, they won’t kill viruses responsible for colds and flu.
Worryingly, taking antibiotics incorrectly or when you don’t need to could cause resistance and contribute to what the World Health Organisation has labelled “an increasingly serious threat to public health”.
Resisting the resistance
“Any infection which is caused by bacteria can be helped by antibiotics,” says Chris Del Mar, a professor of public health at Bond University.
The trouble is bacterial infections that were once easily cured with antibiotics are becoming harder to treat. This is because bacteria have developed what’s called ‘antibiotic resistance’.
“In Australia and around the world there’s increasing antimicrobial resistance to antibiotics,” says Dr Evan Ackermann from the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners.
The fear is infectious diseases will again become more common.
“It’s becoming such a problem that at some point in the future we’re going to reach a stage where illnesses which have been previously easily treated with antibiotics are going to develop resistance, and we won’t be able to treat those illnesses with antibiotics anymore. The fear is infectious diseases will again become more common.”
When to take antibiotics and when to avoid them
The overuse and misuse of antibiotics are some of the major causes of antibiotic resistance.
One of the most common contributors is the use of antibiotics to treat viral infections like colds, flu, most coughs and sore throats, and stomach flu. It may seem like antibiotics shorten illnesses like these, but in reality they have little effect because the causes of the illness are viral rather than bacterial.
“It’s very difficult for GPs to tell if a cough, sinusitis or a sore throat is caused by virus or bacteria, so doctors got into the habit of using antibiotics liberally and people got used to getting antibiotics when they went to the doctor,” says Professor Del Mar.
“But even if you’ve got a sore throat, middle ear infection, acute sinusitis or bronchitis from a bacterial cause, the chance that antibiotics will make any difference is really quite small. These illnesses get better by themselves.”
Experts agree that taking antibiotics for bacterial infections and only when necessary can help to prevent antibiotic resistance – and keep you at distance from largely unreported side effects.
“We tend to forget antibiotics have common harms like thrush, diarrhea, vomiting and rashes,” says Professor Del Mar.
“When you go to your doctor, ask how much benefit and harm you’ll get from antibiotics, even before you start talking about resistance. We think sharing information with patients will result in far fewer antibiotics being prescribed.”