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What is antibiotic resistance?

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), antibiotic resistance occurs when all the bacteria that cause infection are not killed by the antibiotics taken to stop the infection. When antibiotics are overused, bacteria can develop new ways to fight off the medicine. These new, stronger bacteria survive and continue to multiply causing more harm. These bacteria, known as “super bugs,” can make illnesses harder to cure and last longer. Stronger bacteria are called “resistant” because they resist antibiotics.

Misuse and overuse of antibiotics is a major concern. Each time you take an antibiotic unnecessarily or improperly, you increase your chance of developing resistant bacteria. So it is really important to take antibiotics only when necessary. Because of these resistant bacteria, some diseases that used to be easy to treat are now becoming nearly impossible to treat. Contributors to antibiotic resistance include:

  • asking for antibiotics when they are not needed;
  • failing to finish an antibiotic prescription;
  • saving the unused medication and taking it later for another illness;
  • taking antibiotics before symptoms arise simply to avoid getting sick.

Antibiotic “Myth-Information”
First Health wants to provide you with the accurate information to help you as a consumer better manage your use of antibiotics. It is easier to manage your health with the right information. Click one of the myths below to get started.

  1. Antibiotics are effective against both bacterial and viral infections.
  2. Antibiotics are the only cure for common colds, sore throats, coughs, and aches and pains.
  3. It is okay to stop taking an antibiotic after your symptoms go away.
  4. Children fight off most childhood illnesses better with antibiotics.

Myth 1—Antibiotics are effective against both bacterial and viral infections.

The answer is no. Taking an antibiotic to avoid a sickness does not prevent you from getting ill. This action can cause the exact opposite. Antibiotics cannot cure every illness. Antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections such as strep throat and sinusitis. They have absolutely no impact on viral infections such as the flu. You recover from viruses when the illness has run its course. Taking antibiotics “just in case” can cause harm and this very practice has contributed to the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.

Understanding the difference between a bacterial and viral infection is one way to decrease the use of antibiotics and manage your health. Keep in mind, however, only your doctor can diagnosis your symptoms. The most common illnesses are listed below with guidelines for each, provided by the American Academy of Family Physicians:

  • Colds and flu are caused by viruses. They can’t be cured with antibiotics. Symptoms can last two weeks or more and should be allowed to run their course.
  • Coughs and bronchitis are almost always caused by viruses. However, if you have a lung condition or the illness lasts a long time, your infection may be caused by a bacteria. Your doctor may decide to try treatment with an antibiotic.
  • Most sore throats are caused by viruses and don’t need antibiotics. However, strep throat is caused by bacteria and usually requires treatment with antibiotics. A throat swab and a lab test are needed before your doctor will prescribe an antibiotic for a sore throat.
  • Ear infections often require the use of antibiotics. However, not all ear infections are bacterial infections.
  • Sinus infections do not always indicate a bacterial infection. Even if you have a runny nose, or yellow/green mucus, you may not have a bacterial infection. Antibiotics should only be used for severe infections or those that last more than two weeks.

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Myth 2—Antibiotics are the only cure for common colds, sore throats, coughs and aches and pains.

No, antibiotics are not effective against viral infections such as the flu. For decades, antibiotics have been prescribed by many physicians for every sniffle and sneeze, even when the source of the problem is a virus. Antibiotics have also been prescribed for ear and even sinus infections, many of which are not caused by bacteria at all.

Antibiotics are strong medicines that can cure many bacterial illnesses and infections. Antibiotics work by either killing bacteria or by inhibiting growth. Remember, a cold is a viral infection that cannot be cured with antibiotics. As recommended by the Food and Drug Administration, common remedies can help with colds, sniffles, sore throats, coughs, and aches and pains:

  • Raise the humidity level by sitting in the bathroom with a hot shower running or using a humidifier/vaporizer.
  • Drink extra fluids; warm fluids are especially soothing for irritated throats.
  • Gargle with salt water.
  • Suck on hard candy. Hard candies are as effective as cough drops.
  • Try saline nose drops or sprays.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Wash your hands often.
  • Eat soup.
  • Over-the-counter cold and cough medicines can help relieve symptoms.
  • Speak to your pharmacist. Pharmacists are accessible and are often willing to take the time to explain “the fine print.” By having all your prescriptions filled at the same pharmacy, the pharmacist is in the position to know about the wide range of medications and possible interactions that specialists who deal with only a targeted treatment area my not even be aware of. Ask your pharmacist about off-the-shelf alternatives.

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Myth 3—It is okay to stop taking an antibiotic after your symptoms go away.

Absolutely not. You need to finish the entire prescription, even if you feel well or no longer experience symptoms. It is important to take an antibiotic exactly as the doctor prescribes. Not finishing the full dosage as prescribed leaves some bacteria alive and “resistant” to future antibiotic treatment.

By not completing the prescription or skipping doses, it is probable that the strongest of the bacteria still remain. These bacteria will continue to replicate and you will have to address the infection for a second time, this time facing a stronger opponent.

It is equally dangerous to resume using a prescription from a previous infection. In this case, there is a strong possibility for mis-diagnosis and you could be exposed to unnecessary antibiotics and the possible adverse effects, which may include: nausea, diarrhea, and increased sensitivity to sunlight. Most side effects are mild, but some, especially allergic reactions, can be severe. An allergic reaction can even be life-threatening.

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Myth 4—Children fight off most childhood illnesses better with antibiotics.

Yes, taking antibiotics when unnecessary can harm your child. The most common childhood illnesses (sore throats, bronchitis and colds) rarely warrant antibiotics. Children may get better a bit quicker at first with antibiotics, but then they are likely to get sick more often, with longer, more stubborn infections caused by more resistant bacteria. The routine use of antibiotics makes life worse for children and parents—even apart from the side effects and risks of allergic reactions many children have. According to Dr. Greene’s House Calls (an online health information resource offering parents pediatric advice) up to 60% of children with common colds are treated with antibiotics. Because children average three to eight colds each year, they can get many, many rounds of unnecessary (and therefore harmful) antibiotics.

Ear infections in children are tricky because not all ear infections are the same. Ear infections are usually classified as either acute otitis media (AOM) or otitis media with effusion (OME). It is important for your doctor to diagnosis what kind of ear infection your child has so you know how to treat it. Most children with ear infections have OME, fluid in the ear without signs of an acute middle ear infection. Half of young children with colds get OME. Antibiotics are not useful for the initial treatment of OME, although they may be worth a try if OME last for longer than 3 months. Antibiotics are appropriate for AOM with documented fluid in the ear and clear signs of acute illness.

It is also important to ask questions if your doctor prescribes an antibiotic. The CDC recommends you ask your doctor the following questions:

  • Why does my child need an antibiotic?
  • What is the name of the drug?
  • How and when does he/she take it and for how long?
  • Are there food, drinks or activities my child should avoid while taking this medication?
  • Does the medication cause side effects? What are they and how can I prevent them?
  • Can he/she take this medication safely while also taking another prescription or nonprescription medicine?

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Now that you went through each myth, resist the urge!
As part of our continual commitment to helping you maintain a healthier lifestyle, First Health wants you to use antibiotics appropriately. Smart use of antibiotics is the key to decreasing, or even reversing, the spread of resistance. Taking antibiotics properly can help prevent having to take more dangerous and more costly medications. Take your medicine exactly as it is prescribed and do not expect to take antibiotics every time you get sick. You can better manage your health if you have the right information and communicate with your doctor.

For more information on antibiotic resistance, visit the CDC site at