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Your Health: When is an antibiotic appropriate?

Question: Why is our doctor reluctant to give us antibiotics when we are sick?

Answer: Antibiotics must be used wisely to prevent the growth and spread of resistant bacteria. Repeated and improper use of antibiotics is the primary cause for drug-resistant bacteria, a health care issue that has become a global health concern. The majority of illnesses, such as the common cold, are usually viral and will get better on their own.

Q. What are antibiotic resistant bacteria?

A. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a good example of a drug-resistant illness. At one time, MRSA infections were primarily found only in people who were hospitalized. A newer form of MRSA causes infections in healthy people now. Antibiotic resistant infections such as MRSA are difficult to treat and can contribute to longer lasting illnesses, more doctor visits, extended hospital stays, and the need for more expensive and toxic medications. Some resistant infections can even cause death.

Q. When are antibiotics appropriate?

A. Bacterial infections, some fungal infections, and certain kinds of parasites are effectively treated with antibiotics. Bladder infections, severe ear and sinus infections, strep throat and skin infections are examples of common health issues effectively treated with antibiotics. Antibiotics are not effective for viral infections, such as colds, flu and bronchitis.

Q. If antibiotics shouldn’t be overused, why are we told to take them even after we feel good again?

A. Not taking antibiotics exactly as prescribed can lead to problems. If you take a portion of the recommended prescription, the antibiotic may wipe out some bacteria, resulting in you feeling better. But remaining bacteria become more resistant. When you need an antibiotic again, your doctor has to resort to more costly, stronger prescription drugs that can also be accompanied by more serious side effects. Taking the full course of antibiotics is the only way to kill all of the harmful bacteria.          

Q. What can I do to prevent developing bacteria resistant infections?

A. Avoid taking antibiotics whenever possible. If you take antibiotics too often for things they don’t effectively treat, they become less effective in battling the bacteria in your body. If antibiotics are prescribed, take them according to your doctor’s instructions. To avoid spreading germs, practice good hygiene. Wash hands frequently with soap and water, especially after using the bathroom or during food preparation. Clean areas where you prepare food with soap and water prior to and after using them. Get recommended vaccinations — which might decrease your chances of getting certain illnesses.

Q. When should I see a doctor?

A. Any time you don’t feel well for an extended period, even if you believe you have an illness where antibiotics are not recommended, it’s still a good idea to make an appointment with your doctor. Your doctor can offer advice on ways to alleviate symptoms, and he/she can determine whether or not you will benefit from medication.

Dr. Judith Mills is a family medicine physician at Sanford Bemidji Clinic. A graduate of New York College of Osteopathic Medicine in Old Westbury, N.Y., she completed a residency in family medicine at St. Barnabas Hospital in Bronx, N.Y.  She is certified by the American Osteopathic Board of Family Physicians.