Dr. Claire McCarthy is a primary care physician and the Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children’s Hospital. Along with her blogs here on Thriving, you can find her at the Huffington Post and Boston.com. Follow her on Twitter @drClaire.
We are entering cold and flu season—that time of year when many of us, and many of our loved ones, get sore throats and coughs and congestion and fevers and feel downright miserable. In our quest to feel better (and to make those we love feel better), it’s natural to want to do everything possible. So it’s understandable that many people want their doctors to give them antibiotics—after all, they have an infection and antibiotics treat infections, right?
Not exactly—or at least not always. That’s why the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has declared November 12th-18th “Get Smart About Antibiotics Week”: to help teach people what they need to know about antibiotics.
There are three main things the CDC would like you know:
1. Antibiotics aren’t always the answer. Antibiotics treat bacteria, a certain kind of germ. However, most of the illnesses we see during cold and flu season aren’t caused by bacteria; they are caused by viruses. Most people know that the common cold is caused by a virus, but not everyone knows that most sore throats, ear infections and sinus infections are caused by viruses too. There’s absolutely no point in giving antibiotics for a viral infection; it won’t help at all.
Now, some coughs, sore throats, ear infections and sinus infections are caused by, or made worse by, bacteria and do need antibiotics. A high fever, bad pain, or symptoms that last more than a few days make it more likely that bacteria are involved, but it’s not always easy to tell. That’s why it’s important to check in with your doctor if an illness is getting worse, doesn’t go away, or if you have any questions or concerns.
2. Giving antibiotics too often can cause trouble. When it comes to antibiotics, many people think: if it might help it’s worth trying, right? Umm…no. Bacteria, like any other living thing want to survive. So they find ways to change and adapt so that antibiotics don’t work against them as well. Over time, if the bacteria are exposed to lots of antibiotics, the weaker ones die off—leaving the stronger, “resistant” bacteria behind. Those resistant bacteria can cause infections that are much harder to treat.
According to the CDC, antibiotic resistance is one of the world’s most pressing public health problems. They say that almost every type of bacteria has become stronger and less responsive to antibiotic treatment. That’s scary.
3. There are often better ways than antibiotics to make a person feel better. That’s what we want: to feel better. The vast majority of viral illnesses get better on their own; it’s a matter of finding ways to relieve the symptoms while we wait. Here are some tips for fighting the symptoms of colds and flu:
- Use a cool mist humidifier to relieve congestion and soothe coughs
- Drink plenty of fluids, and get plenty of rest
- Saline nose drops can help clear stuffy noses
- For children older than a year, try honey for coughs—works just as well as cold medicines (which we don’t recommend for children, especially children under the age of six) and tastes much better
- Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help fever and muscle aches—check with your doctor for the right dose
- A warm compress can help a sore ear—and one on the forehead or face can help sinus pressure
- Don’t underestimate the value of hugs and snuggling. They can make all the difference sometimes.
And remember: get your flu shot!