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Antibiotics Don't Work for Cold and Flu

November 13, 2012

Get Smart About When to Use Antibiotics Before They Become Ineffective

As we enter the cold and flu season, it's important to remember that antibiotics don't work on those illnesses. Antibiotics kill bacteria, and the cold and flu are caused by viruses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC urges everyone to Get Smart About Antibiotics, the theme for its annual awareness week, this year scheduled for November 12-18.

"I try to remind patients that most infections are viral not bacterial," said infectious disease specialist Dr. Dianne Martin, who co-chairs the Infection Control team at Washington Hospital. "Even when kids come down with ear infections, sore throats, runny noses, and chest congestion, they are caused by a virus. Antibiotics won't help."

The CDC launched the Get Smart campaign because too many people don't understand that antibiotics don't work on viral infections. That's a problem because taking antibiotics when they are not needed does more harm than good, according to Martin. Widespread inappropriate use of antibiotics is causing an increase in drug-resistant bacteria, she explained.

But people go to their doctors when they are sick and ask for antibiotics. They want relief and mistakenly believe antibiotics will cure what ails them.

"Physicians have to explain to their patients why an antibiotic is not being prescribed," Martin said. "But some patients are very insistent and for some doctors it's just easier to write a prescription than engage in a lengthy conversation trying to convince a patient that antibiotics won't work."

Just Say No

It is estimated that more than 50 percent of antibiotics are unnecessarily prescribed in doctors' office settings for upper respiratory infections like cough and cold, according to the CDC. In addition, three out of 10 children who visit an outpatient provider with the common cold receive an antibiotic.

"Taking antibiotics unnecessarily increases your chances of becoming sick with an antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection," Martin said. "Antibiotic resistance is not just an issue for the sick person. It is a global health issue. Overuse of antibiotics promotes the development of drug-resistant germs that can spread from person to person."

She said there are steps individuals can take to reduce these risks, including
* Take the antibiotic exactly as prescribed. Don't skip doses and complete the entire course, even if you feel better.
* Only take antibiotics prescribed to you. Do not share or use leftover antibiotics.
* Discard any leftover antibiotics once the prescribed course is taken.
* Do not ask for antibiotics when your doctor says you don't need them.

"We all need to work together to ensure that antibiotics are used properly," Martin said. "Antibiotics are powerful drugs that can save lives. But they won't be effective against existing and new bacterial strains if we continue to misuse them."

Get a Flu Shot

The best protection against the flu is an influenza vaccination, also called a flu shot, she added. The flu shot contains three seasonal flu viruses that cause your body to build up antibodies capable of fighting off those strains. The viruses are inactivated or killed, so you can't get the flu from a flu shot, according to the CDC.

The best time to get your flu shot is now until December. The flu season generally runs from November through April, so that allows the protective antibodies to build up before flu activity is typically at its highest.

"We are having an early flu season this year, so I really encourage everyone to get a flu shot as soon as possible," Martin said. "Anyone over the age of 6 months should get a flu shot."

She said it's important to wash your hands frequently to avoid spreading germs and keep hand sanitizers in your home, car, and at work.

"Get kids in the habit of coughing and sneezing into a tissue instead of their hands," she added. "You should also consider putting together a cold and flu kit so you are ready when someone in the house gets sick."

Martin recommended including over-the-counter symptom relievers, cough syrup, throat lozenges, hand sanitizer, tissues, and soup.

"That way you have everything you need and you don't have to go to the store and spread your germs," she said. "Parents sometimes feel pressure to send their kids to school when they are sick or go to work themselves. But it's really best to stay home when you are sick. You need to rest so you can be at your best and you don't want to get other people sick."

For more information about the flu, visit www.cdc.gov/flu. To find out how to get a flu vaccination, call Washington Hospital's Health Connection hotline at (800) 963-7070. To learn about upcoming Washington Hospital classes and seminars that can help you stay healthy, visit www.whhs.com.