North Jefferson News, Gardendale, AL

November 3, 2009

Antibiotics are never the right call if patient has a virus

Health Watch By Nicholas Helms

The North Jefferson News

Fall is now upon us and for many people that means colds and allergies.

In addition to the normal seasonal ailments that most experience, the H1N1 Influenza virus, or Swine Flu, is a new sickness that will affect patients this fall and winter. With so many affected by these illnesses, many questions arise as to how to best treat them.

When to use antibiotics

When most of us are sick, the first remedy we think of is an antibiotic.

These are great drugs that work well at fighting off infections caused by bacteria. This is where the questions and some confusion come into play.

Exactly which infections are caused by bacteria? This becomes important due to that fact that antibiotics will not treat colds, flu and allergies as many believe. These illnesses are not caused by bacteria, consequently making antibiotics ineffective and potentially harmful.

Although antibiotics treat bacterial infections well, taking an antibiotic when one is not needed may inadvertently cause any other bacteria in your body to become resistant to the antibiotics.


Resistance is quickly becoming a hot topic in the medical profession as it is a growing problem that is affecting many patients by producing infections that are not responding to antibiotics.

Because of the growing size of the problem, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has started promoting a new campaign they are calling Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work.

The purpose of the campaign is to educate the public on the proper use of antibiotics and signs and symptoms of true bacterial infections.

Public effect

Why is resistance a problem?

Imagine getting walking pneumonia. Usually, going to your doctor and getting an antibiotic easily treats this illness. You feel pretty bad for a while, but the antibiotic kills off the bacteria and soon you are in good health.

If you had the misfortune of getting a pneumonia caused by a resistant bacterium, this could be a much different story. An easily treatable illness such as pneumonia becomes a big problem as the normally prescribed antibiotics have little effect. The illness progresses and you could end up in the hospital for quite some time. When looking at a scenario such as this one, it is easy to see how resistance could become a significant problem.

What can you do? The public should become more aware of which illnesses truly need an antibiotic. With this knowledge, everyone can begin to do their part to use antibiotics more appropriately. Many patients feel inadequately treated if they leave the doctor still having cold and flu symptoms without receiving an antibiotic. Remember that not every illness needs an antibiotic and that an antibiotic will not treat illnesses that are not caused by a bacterial infection. Only your doctor can tell if you have a bacterial infection.

A great resource is the CDC’s campaign website: Here you can find some basic information about antibiotic use, what illnesses are caused by bacteria, and what you can do when you do not need an antibiotic.

Bacterial infection signs

• Fever

• Skin: Local redness and tenderness

• Respiratory: colored sputum

• Respiratory: sinus symptoms lasting more than 14 days such as runny nose and cough

• While these symptoms do not always mean you have a bacterial infection, they can be signs you should see your doctor.

Illnesses usually caused by viruses

• Colds

• Flu

• Most bronchitis

• Sinusitis

These illnesses are usually caused by viruses, meaning that antibiotics will NOT cure them and also will NOT make you feel better. Only your doctor can determine if you need an antibiotic.

Nicholas Helms is a Pharm-D candidate with Auburn University’s Harrison School of Pharmacy, interning at The Pharmacy in Mt. Olive. The Pharmacy can be reached at 631-1201.