Ho Ho No to Antibiotics

T’is the season for holiday festivities, and cold and flu. Unfortunately, they go hand in unwashed, sneezed-upon hand. It’s also the season when many of us tend toward excess—whether in our shopping, party-going or sugar-cooking eating.

One thing, though, your doctor doesn’t want to see on your “excess” list is antibiotics. Especially when patients request them to treat cold and flu.

“Many patients come to me with sniffles and sore throats complaining that they ‘don’t have time to be sick,’” says Roper St. Francis primary care doctor Valerie Scott. “They’re thinking an antibiotic will help “nip it in the bud, but actually, prescribing an antibiotic for a viral illness like common cold or flu nips nothing, and in fact can hurt,” Dr. Scott explains.

Antibiotics not only won’t help your cold/flu symptoms, they can lead to more severe side effects, such as diarrhea, nausea, an allergic reaction or a rash. Antibiotics can cause a serious imbalance in the good organisms that live in your intestines and possibly lead to an overgrowth of a nasty, and potentially life-threatening, bacteria called C. Difficile.

In general, inappropriate prescription of antibiotics is contributing to a rise in antibiotic resistant organisms such as MRSA, a Staph bacterium that can cause serious skin infections and is no longer sensitive to the antibiotics that used to kill it. Each year, at least two million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.

“Typically, the most common inappropriate usage of antibiotics occurs in the setting of a cold/sinusitis or bronchitis. I think this is in part because we – both providers and patients – have been using incorrect guidelines for when an antibiotic is appropriate,” Dr. Scott says. The common thought was that if the nasal mucous turned dark in color, it was a bacterial infection and an antibiotic was needed. “There is also a widespread fear of bronchitis turning into pneumonia, so people understandably seek out antibiotics, but we now know that mucus naturally turns darker in color as the cold works through your system, and antibiotics don’t work prophylactically.”

The common cold symptoms of runny nose, sore throat, sneezing and cough can be caused by more than 200 different viruses. For healthy individuals, treatment for a cold or viral sinusitis should include remedies that will help to open the sinus passages, and those that will support the immune system. And the best way to fight the common cold is not through antibiotics, but through good old soap and water, and avoiding people who are sick as much as possible. Boost your immune system by staying hydrated, getting good sleep and eating healthfully.

Getting your flu shot is a smart move. But reaching for antibiotics to treat cold or flu is not.

And if you want to learn more about the difference between viral and a bacterial illnesses, watch this brief episode of RSF’s HouseCall’s TV, featuring Dr. Jeanne Lumpkin discussing “What is a Virus.”