Ask the doctor: The dangers of over-using antibiotics

Doctor explaining to woman holding antibiotics why there's a danger in over-prescribing them
Contents of this article

1. Should I take antibiotics to cure my cough/ cold/ chest infection?

No. Cold, flu and chest infections are caused by viruses. Antibiotics treat bacterial infection which is a totally different thing. Bacteria are one-celled organisms that can live anywhere inside your body, while viruses live only inside of cells. Antibacterial medication won’t do anything to viruses because they’re hiding inside cells.

Antibiotics will not cure:

  • Colds or flu
  • Most coughs and bronchitis
  • Sore throats not caused by strep (Streptoccus bacteria)
  • Runny noses

2. What about with children, aren’t they more vulnerable?

Children are prone to colds, (mainly because their immune system hasn’t fully developed yet, and their nasal and sinus passages are smaller, making them more prone to viral infection). They may have 8 to 12 of them a year. But this is nothing to worry about. Colds tend to clear up once they’ve run their course and shouldn’t be treated with antibiotics.

3. If I shouldn’t take antibiotics, then why does my doctor prescribe them?

Usually, it’s down to pressure from patients. A recent study on paediatric care showed that doctors prescribed antibiotics 65% of the time if they felt that patients expected them to, and only 12% of the time otherwise. 

4. Are there any circumstances where I should use antibiotics?

In certain circumstances a viral infection can ‘turn into’ a bacterial infection (usually because if you have congestion that lingers too long, it gets infected). This is known as a secondary infection and should be treated with antibiotics. You will know when your cold has turned into a secondary infection because your nasal discharge will turn green or yellow and become thick in consistency (when it was white and watery before).

  • Other tell-tale symptoms of a bacterial infection are:
  • Illness is persisting for longer than the expected 10-14 days that a virus tends to last for.
  • Fever is higher than you might normally expect from a virus.
  • Fever gets worse a few days into the illness rather than improving.

5. Should I take it in the case of pneumonia?

Yes, pneumonia, sinusitis and ear infections are all common examples of secondary bacterial infections. Pneumonia can be very dangerous if left untreated, particularly in the elderly. Symptoms of pneumonia are:

  • Persistent cough
  • Stomach ache
  • Difficulty breathing

Pneumonia is usually diagnosed by an x-ray. If you suspect you have it, go and see your doctor and they can prescribe you some antibiotics.

6. So what should antibiotics be used for then?

You’d use an antibiotic for things like:

  • Bladder infections
  • Many wound and skin infections, such as staph infections
  • Severe sinus infections that last longer than 2 weeks
  • Some ear infections
  • Strep throat

7. What are the side effects of antibiotics?

The most common side-effects of antibiotics are: diarrhoea, nausea (feeling sick) and vomiting.

Some people may also suffer bouts of fungal infection (i.e. thrush) after using antibiotics, as they destroy some of the body’s ‘good’ bacteria that stop micro-organisms like fungi from growing out of control.

And then there’s the risk of your body building up resistance to antibiotics if you continue to overuse them. 

8. What’s building up resistance to antibiotics? How serious a risk is this?

Every time you take antibiotics, a certain number of bacteria will be killed but some, more resistant germs will be left behind to grow and multiply. If you repeatedly use antibiotics when you don’t need to, these drug-resistant strains will take over and antibiotics will stop working.

This is a serious risk. Antibiotics are notoriously difficult to discover, so if we run out of the ones we have then we won’t be able to treat serious illness. This is how things like MRSA spread.

Children are a particular concern because they have the highest rates of antibiotic use and the highest rate of infections caused by antibiotic-resistant pathogens. 

9. I have already been prescribed antibiotics for my cold, should I stop taking them?

No, if you’ve started a course of antibiotics you should finish them.

10. What should I do to cure my cold?

The best way to deal with a cold is the old fashioned way: with plenty of bed rest and drinking lots of fluids. Just let your immune system do its job.

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