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What Are Antibiotics and Can They Be Overused During a Pandemic?

Antibiotics are medicines that help stop infections caused by bacteria. They do this by killing the bacteria or by keeping them from copying themselves or reproducing.

The word antibiotic means “against life.” Any drug that kills germs in your body is technically an antibiotic. But most people use the term when they’re talking about medicine that is meant to kill bacteria.

Before scientists first discovered them in the 1920s, many people died from what we consider today as minor bacterial infections, like strep throat let alone surgery which was much riskier.   After antibiotics became available in the 1940s, life expectancy increased, surgeries got safer, and people could survive what used to be deadly infections.

What They Can and Cannot Do

Most bacteria that live in your body are harmless. Some are even helpful. Still, bacteria can infect almost any organ. Fortunately, antibiotics can usually help.  Some common infections that can be treated with antibiotics include:

  • Some ear and sinus infections
  • Dental infections
  • Certain skin infections
  • Meningitis (which produces the swelling of the brain and spinal cord)
  • Strep throat
  • Bladder and kidney infections
  • Bacterial pneumonias of the lungs
  • Whooping cough

Only bacterial infections can be killed with antibiotics. The common cold, flu, most coughs, some bronchitis infections, most sore throats, and the stomach flu and COVID are all caused by viruses.  Antibiotics DO NOT work to treat them.  It’s not always obvious whether an infection is viral or bacterial. Sometimes your doctor will do tests before deciding which treatment you need.

Some antibiotics work on many different kinds of bacteria. They’re called “broad-spectrum.” Others target specific bacteria only. They’re known as “narrow-spectrum.”

Side Effects

Since your gut is full of bacteria -- both good and bad -- antibiotics often affect your digestive system while they’re treating an infection. Common side effects include:

  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Bloating or indigestion
  • Abdominal pain
  • Loss of appetite

More rarely some individuals may experience symptoms that mean they are allergic to the antibiotic.  Let your doctor and our pharmacist know right away so that they can avoid this or a similar antibiotic in the future.   Allergic symptoms include:

  • Hives (raised itchy skin rash)
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Tight throat or difficulty breathing

If you’re taking birth control pills, antibiotics may keep them from working as well as they should, so speak our pharmacist and discuss options. Women can also get vaginal yeast infections while taking antibiotics. 

Antibiotic Resistance

Antibiotics are a powerful tool when used carefully and safely.  But up to one-half of all antibiotic use is not necessary. Overuse of these has led to antibacterial resistance, where bacteria adapt over time and become “super bacteria” or “superbugs" and that antibiotic no longer works on them.  This is a concern because it limits the number of drugs that can effectively kill them.  The best way to help slow the spread of super bacteria is by being smart with antibiotics. Here’s how:

  • Trust your doctor if they say you don’t need them.
  • Don’t take them for a viral infection.
  • Only take the ones your doctor has prescribed for you.
  • Do not share or give unused antibiotics to anyone else
  • Take them as directed.
  • Don’t skip doses.
  • Take them for the full number of days your doctor prescribes.
  • Don’t save them for later.

Overuse During Pandemic?

June 2, 2020 - The World Health Organization said the overprescribing of antibiotics for COVID-19 patients may be creating a bacterial resistance to antibiotics used to treat common infections.

The WHO has increased its monitoring of antibiotic resistance, with the organization’s Global Antimicrobial Resistance and Use Surveillance System now collecting data from 2 million patients in 66 nations.  But the data “reveals that a worrying number of bacterial infections are increasingly resistant to the medicines at hand to treat them,” WHO said.

For example, the resistance rate to ciprofloxacin, an antimicrobial frequently used to treat urinary tract infections, varied from 8.4% to 92.9% in 33 reporting countries.

“WHO is concerned that the trend will further be fueled by the inappropriate use of antibiotics during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the release said. “Evidence shows that only small proportion of COVID-19 patients need antibiotics to treat subsequent bacterial infections. …”

The WHO recently released guidance to doctors, saying they shouldn’t use antibiotics on patients with mild or moderate cases of COVid-19 unless there was a clear clinical reason to do so.

Let's be aware!


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