What can’t be treated with antibiotics?

If you follow myself and Lynne on Whatdoyou? you will know that my son, George, has recently had ENT surgery and unfortunately been suffering from some pretty awful complications including bleeding and a nasty infection. He has been readmitted to hospital twice (so far) and it has really highlighted to me how important it is for us all to look after our antibiotics. When an infection takes hold, a simple problem can turn into a nightmare.

For many of us, lack of information means we do not understand what can and what can’t be treated with antibiotics. This, in turn, means we don’t fully appreciate the harm we are doing by using them incorrectly.

Doctors are sometimes quick to prescribe them unnecessarily, and if we ask for antibiotics and the doctor refuses they rarely explain why it is not a good idea. If we had all the facts then we’d be happy to avoid antibiotic overuse to protect our children’s future.

So what CAN and what CAN’T be treated with antibiotics? –

Antibiotics kill BACTERIA only.

When you take your child to the doctors with a bad sore throat you want them to offer a solution.

If that sore throat is caused by a bacteria, and it is something they are not managing to fight off themselves, then antibiotics will kill the bacteria causing the bad throat.

BUT antibiotics will NOT kill a virus

If a similar sore throat is caused by a VIRUS then no amount of antibiotics will help because it is caused by the virus and antibiotics can’t kill a virus.

When the doctor says they are not giving you antibiotics it sometimes feels like they are not offering a solution. But the reality is that antibiotics are not the solution. They would do nothing to a virus and the symptoms have to be treated differently, which may be frustrating, but a scientific fact.

Why can’t antibiotics treat a virus?

What CAN”T be treated with antibiotics and why. Unfortunately, there isn’t an equal to antibiotics for a virus because viruses change, or mutate, all the time and so drugs to cure viruses are hard to produce. This is the reason why the flu vaccine has to be given again every year, as scientists try to predict what the new, mutated strain will look like, and even then they sometimes get it wrong and it isn’t fully effective.

It is not about the severity of your symptoms

What frustrates me the most is that often doctors don’t explain that it is NOT the severity of the symptoms you or your child present with that dictates whether they give you antibiotics or not. But if you don’t have the facts it can often feel like that. Sometimes a virus can be much more severe than a bacterial infection but antibiotics will make no difference because they only work on bacteria.

Unfortunately, over the years, doctors have over-prescribed antibiotics, patients have over-demanded them and then not taken the full prescribed course (often through lack of understanding), so bacteria have been able to build up resistance. Antibiotic resistance occurs naturally but misuse in humans and animals has accelerated the process.

The World Health Organisation (WHO)

The World Health Organisation states that:-

Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today.

So what can we do to prevent and control antibiotic resistance?

Antibiotic resistance is accelerated by the misuse and overuse of antibiotics, as well as poor infection prevention and control. How do we reduce the impact and limit the spread of resistance?

As Individuals:-

  • Only use antibiotics when prescribed by a certified health professional.
  • Never demand antibiotics if your health worker says you don’t need them.
  • Always follow your health worker’s advice when using antibiotics.
  • Never share or use leftover antibiotics – because different antibiotics work on different bacteria.
  • Prevent infections by regularly washing hands, preparing food hygienically, avoiding close contact with sick people, practising safer sex, and keeping vaccinations up to date.
  • Prepare food hygienically, following the WHO Five Keys to Safer Food (keep clean, separate raw and cooked, cook thoroughly, keep food at safe temperatures, use safe water and raw materials) and choose foods that have been produced without the use of antibiotics for growth promotion or disease prevention in healthy animals.

Once you have a good understanding of how antibiotics work it becomes less frustrating when you are not offered them. Doctors (who, I think are amazing by the way), need to explain clearly to parents (who are completely amazing), how they work and make sure patients understand that not being offered antibiotics does not mean that the doctor thinks your child’s symptoms are any less serious – just caused by a different microorganism.

Spread the word about what CAN and what CAN’T be treated with antibiotics

Useful Links:

Antibiotics – NHS.UK

World Health Organisation – Antibiotic resistance

PALS – Patient Advice and Liaison service  The Patient Advice and Liaison Service offers confidential advice, support and information on health-related matters. They provide a point of contact for patients, their families and their carers.

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