Monday, January 10, 2011

Do You Really Need That Antibiotic? Maybe Not

A number of common illnesses are commonly treated with drugs that won't cure you, and could actually make you feel worse.

We're smack dab in the middle of the winter funk, when sniffles, sore throats, and hacking coughs make us miserable. Chances are, if you head to the doctor for one of these complaints, he'll hand you an antibiotic and send you on your merry way.

And there's a fair chance that antibiotic will be completely unnecessary. A nationwide survey of antibiotic use published a few years ago in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that as many as 21 percent of prescriptions issued in one year were for upper respiratory tract infections caused by viruses, for which antibiotics are totally useless.

Antibiotics are useful only against bacterial infections.So why are doctors so willing to prescribe antibiotics for other conditions?

Because we want them, says David H. Newman, MD, director of clinical research in the department of emergency medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and author of the book Hippocrates Shadow (Scribner, 2009). "Patients often come in seeking antibiotics and asking for them, and both patients and doctors desire some sort of technological or scientific answer," he says. "It's easier to hand out a prescription for an antibiotic than to spend five or 10 minutes explaining that our bodies are supposed to fight those things on their own."

And it's partly due to our own misunderstanding of what an infection actually is. "People don't always realize that 'infection' doesn't mean 'bacteria,'" he says. A lot of infections are caused by viruses, and treating them with antibiotics can contribute to antibiotic resistance, as germs develop immunity to overused medication. Inappropriate use of antibiotics can actually hinder your body's ability to stay healthy, too. "You develop antibodies whenever you get sick, and when you take antibiotics, your body stops making antibodies," he says. Therefore, the next time you're exposed to viruses or bacteria, your body is more susceptible to them.

Plus, antibiotics can leave you with some nasty side effects. They can lead to yeast infections and diarrhea because they kill off the beneficial bacteria in your gut and mucous membranes that keep infections at bay. A study published last September in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that taking antibiotics for as little as three to four days changed the levels of beneficial bacteria in people's GI tracts (which can make you prone to diahrrea).

While you may already know not to take antibiotics for things like the common cold or flu, there are other conditions for which doctors sometimes prescribe antibiotics when totally unnecessary. Here a few alternative ways to treat them: Read more.

SOURCE: Rodale