Should you be concerned?
You’re sick and go to the doctor, thinking that you’ll get a prescription for medication that will make you feel better. Imagine your surprise when the doctor tells you that you have a viral infection that doesn’t respond to an antibiotic, so you don’t need a prescription. What does this mean? Why won’t your doctor just give you medicine to make you feel better instead of allowing you to suffer? The truth is, if your illness is caused by a virus, then antibiotics won’t work. When you take antibiotics for a condition that doesn’t require that type of medication, it helps to contribute to the formation of Superbugs. What are Superbugs and why should you care? Let’s take a look at the difference better a viral versus bacterial infection and why modern doctors hesitate to prescribe antibiotics.
Bacteria vs Viruses
Bacteria are single-celled microorganisms that can exist in a variety of environments. Most of them cause no harm, and some are even helpful. Bacteria enter our body and begin to rapidly replicate causing the body’s immune system to respond. The few that do cause us to become ill can usually be managed with antibiotics. Considering that scientists have discovered fossilized bacteria, we know that they adapt very well. If we don’t use antibiotics appropriately, we help contribute to their adaptation and also to their becoming resistant to antibiotics, causing them not to be an effective treatment option. These resistant bacteria are called Superbugs. Viruses are smaller and simpler than bacteria and can’t survive on their own. They need a host in order to be able to multiply. They enter your body, invade some of your cells and hijack the cell machinery, redirecting it to producing the virus. Antibiotics do not work against viruses because they are completely different organisms from bacteria—it’s like trying to compare apples to bread—it doesn’t make sense.
The term “Superbug” has been frequently used by the media to describe infections, but what does it really mean? For those in the medical community, the term “multidrug-resistant bacteria” is a better description of what is actual occurring. Any bacteria species can turn into a Superbug that is resistant to one or more antibiotics, meaning those antibiotics are not effective at killing the bacteria. How can this be? Antibiotics are supposed to make us feel better and vanquish the bad germs. The number one contributing factor to the development of Superbugs is the misuse of antibiotics. That means taking them when you don’t need them, as is the case of a viral infection, or not finishing all of the pills because you feel better after a few days and think you’ll save them for the next time you are sick, which helps the bacteria to adapt and the medication to no longer be effective at treating that type of bacteria. If antibiotics are rendered unusable, then that puts you at increased risk for more serious infections and even at risk of dying from simple infections.
What Can You Do?
As scary as this sounds, there is something that you can do to help prevent the development of Superbugs. When you get sick, instead of immediately going to the doctor and asking for a prescription for antibiotics, go to the pharmacy and get the appropriate medications to treat your symptoms, such as fever (body temperature above 100.4° F), nasal congestion or cough. Then wait a few days to see if your symptoms improve before going to the doctor. Knowing the difference between the symptoms of a bacterial and viral infection can help you decide when to go to the doctor. (Please see Fast Facts for further information, and if at any point you are unsure, seek the advice of a physician.) If you are taking antibiotics, make sure that you finish all of the medication, even when you start to feel better. This is important for killing all the bacteria and preventing them from evolving and becoming resistant to the antibiotic. We have a great opportunity to make a significant impact on health care now and in the future by limiting the number of Superbugs, and you can do your part!