by Rob Lamberts, MD
Hi gang! (Cough, cough) This is Dr. Rob, and this is The House Call (cough) Doctor’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Taking Charge of Your (cough) Health.
Sorry about that. I’ve been coughing like this for a few days. I’ve even had some fever. I wonder if I may need an antibiotic!
Wrong answer! I get people coming into my office with many of the same thoughts. But they aren’t just wrong; they could actually be hurting themselves. The proper use of antibiotics is a very important subject for everyone to understand; so that is what I will cover in today’s podcast.
Let me warn you that this episode is longer than usual. This is a big subject that really requires more explanation than other subjects. It still qualifies as quick and dirty, but just less quick than usual.
Let me again remind you that this podcast is for informational purposes only. My goal is to add to your medical knowledge and translate some of the weird medical stuff you hear, so when you do go to your doctor, your visits will be more fruitful. I don’t intend to replace your doctor; he or she is the one you should always consult about your own medical condition.
What are Antibiotics For?
First let me explain what antibiotics do. Antibiotics treat infections. Infections are the invasion of your body by teeny-tiny bad guys called germs. The two main kinds of germs are bacteria and viruses (although fungi can be pretty bad dudes as well).
Bacteria and Viruses: the Good and the Bad
Some bacteria and even viruses aren’t bad. They wipe their feet and make sure they follow the local customs. Some bacteria even benefit us, and we become sick when they are not present. But other germs are pretty rude guests. They take food that is not theirs, leave their waste all over the place, and generally wreak havoc. They even sometimes release toxic pollution and sometimes multiply so quickly that they kill off the person whose place they crashed.
Sigh. Oh, how I wish instead that they’d join hands with us, share the food, and sing Kumbaya. It’s a hard world we live in, folks.
How Your Body Reacts to Infections
Fortunately, your immune system is really good at knowing which guests will follow the rules and which ones are bad news. It’s the job of certain white blood cells in your body to police the areas where germs hang out, making sure they regret their decision to make you their home. They either kill of the germ themselves, or they take a picture of it and circulate that picture around the rest of your body -- kind of like those pictures of people in the post office. No, they aren’t actual photographs; they are special proteins called antibodies which are made by the white blood cells to carry the image of the bad guys around for all to see. So the next time the germs try to get in, antibodies grab them, which is a signal for the white blood cells to come kill the offending germ.
So what does this have to do with antibiotics? Well, remember those really bad germs I told you about that put out so much pollution that they kill their host? These germs are especially good at avoiding the post offices, sneaking around in shadows, and giving the white blood cells the slip. That is when infections like pneumonia and meningitis can cause problems. Antibiotics were made to help the body fight off these crafty little buggers so they can’t do their damage. Their invention prevented millions of deaths from infectious diseases.
So What’s the Downside?
Antibiotics of sorts have been around for thousands of years but only came into widespread use in the early 20th century. Prior to antibiotic therapy, simple infections like bladder, ear, and sinus infections could potentially become life threatening. So when antibiotics became available, they were used with abandon.
But something happened. Each infection contains a gazillion bacteria (they are really, really tiny) and while the antibiotic kills off almost all of them, some are mutants (kind of like the X-Men, only evil) and can resist the deadly antibiotic. Fortunately, the white blood cells arrive on the scene, clean things up, and send out antibodies to go up in the post offices and do their noble duty. Some of these mutants, however, hide in the shadows. They lurk in places where they can’t be seen, waiting to get their revenge. They don’t mutiply; they just lay low and bide their time.
Eventually, mutants from different people join forces with each other. The more antibiotics are used, the more mutants survive, team up, and finally create armies of resistant mutant bacteria. They are not scared of antibiotics; they scoff at the puny threat of these once deadly drugs. They probably have a little high-pitched evil laugh, but I’ve never heard one.
But seriously, they really are mutants. I am not just saying that to keep your interest. The emergence of resistant bacteria in this way has gone on since antibiotics were first used.
To deal with these mutant armies, we humans created new antibiotics that would counteract the resistance strategy of the bacteria and kill off the mutants. But guess what happened then? You got it: more mutants; but this time they’re even more resistant and difficult to kill. And so the cycle went on for a good portion of the last century: the good guys would make stronger weapons, and the bad guys would figure out a way to resist them.
When will the madness end? Unfortunately, we were the ones to run out of solutions. Now there are bacteria out there that are resistant to nearly every antibiotic made. It’s a scary thing.
Why this Happened: Overuse of Antibiotics
One thing that contributed to the emergence of these evil mutant bacteria criminals was the overuse of antibiotics. Antibiotics are only good against certain infections. The antibiotics most people know--penicillin, sulfa drugs, erythromycin, to name a few -- are weapons aimed at bacteria. Viruses are totally different than bacteria, and so are not vulnerable to these medicines. They thumb their little noses at them.
Viral Infections Versus Bacterial Infections.
Virus infections are very common, and most of them are pretty wimpy. They cause cough, runny nose, and maybe a short case of the runs -- not exactly a fun frolic, but not deadly. The virus infections that cause respiratory symptoms like stuffy nose and cough cause the body to put out a lot of mucous. Unfortunately, the mucous is like an all-you-can-eat buffet for some bacteria. If mucous builds up in the sinuses, bacteria can creep in, take up shop in there, and cause the infection called sinusitis. In the same way, mucous in the ears can lead to bacterial ear infections, and lung mucous can turn into pneumonia. These bacteria are much worse guests than the viruses, causing pain, fever, and more serious complications.
But it’s sometimes hard to tell a bacterial from a viral infection, and so doctors figured it was better err on the side of caution and gave antibiotics to people with virus infections. Guess what happened to those people? They got better! People get better from virus infections without treatment, but if they are on an antibiotic they tend to think the antibiotic made them better. The antibiotic wrongly gets the praise for the job that the immune system did. Poor immune system, nobody ever appreciates it!
So what happens when the person gets their next viral infection? They run to the doctor and say, “Hey doctor guy! The wonder drug you gave me last time made me better, and I want it again!” The doctor, wanting to please the patient, gives another antibiotic prescription. They what happens? Bingo! The person gets better again! That cycle was repeated again and again for many years in many doctors’ offices.
Yes, I gave into that pressure. I have to tell you, getting that off of my chest makes me feel much better. Thanks for being there for me. When I first became a doctor (not long after Columbus discovered America), I really wanted my patients to like me. I was a little insecure that nobody would want me as their doctor-- or if they did-- it would only be when they had no other option. It’s common for young doctors to want to impress their patients, and even more common for them to want to avoid making their patients angry. So even though I knew most infections were viral and did not need antibiotics, I caved to the desire to please patients. It was hard not to because many of them were really sure they needed antibiotics.
It’s not as big of a battle anymore. Part of this is that I’m an old fart now and don’t mind making people mad at me. I’ve got plenty of patients and don’t need to practice bad medicine to keep my office full. Another factor is the fact that big bad resistant bacteria like MRSA have made the news. People are finally aware of the harm of antibiotic overuse, and so will crumple when I say something like: “I certainly don’t want to use antibiotics if they aren’t needed. I don’t want to create resistant bacteria.”
But the damage has been done, and now we really have nasty mutant bacteria armies causing havoc in certain places. Some have even referred to this time as the post-antibiotic era. I wouldn’t go that far.
The good news is that not all mutations make bacteria stronger. What caused the creation of antibiotic-resisting super bacteria in the first place was the presence of antibiotics. If a population of resistant bacteria is left alone, the need for this antibiotic-resistant trait disappears, and eventually fat and lazy bacteria without the resistant genes replace those nasty resistant bacteria. I’m sure there are old resistant bacteria that say something like: “I remember back in the amoxicillin era, bacteria were dying left and right. Kids these days don’t think resistance is important. Bah!”
The moral of the story is that the more you use antibiotics, the less they work; but the less you use them, the more they work. But here’s the catch: that rule only works well when everyone everywhere follows it, as the bad bacteria off of your uncle Fred who overuses antibiotics can jump on you and make you sick. We all have to be careful to avoid overuse.
So when are antibiotics needed and when should they be avoided? Here are my quick and dirty tips about antibiotics:
Tip 1: Wait
I have people coming in to see me who say: “The last time I got a cold, I got a sinus infection. I want to catch it now before it goes into one.”
While I appreciate their desire to avoid getting sicker, creating resistant bacteria is a much bigger risk. Even if there is a 50% chance it will turn into an infection needing an antibiotic, waiting until the illness declares itself is always the best policy. If I give antibiotics when you don’t need them, then they may not work when you do need them.
Tip 2: Wait Some More
I prefer waiting for a week before I treat cough or sinus symptoms. Studies show that people do just fine waiting. But don’t antibiotics make bacteria infections get better faster? The truth is, most bacterial ear infections and sinus infections will get better without antibiotics.
Don’t believe me? In one study of children with ear infections, parents were given pain-relief eardrops and a prescription for antibiotics and told to delay antibiotic use. Over half of these children didn’t end up needing an antibiotic, and they suffered fewer symptoms than the antibiotic-treated kids, many of whom had antibiotic side effects.[i]
Other studies have shown that real sinus infections got better just as fast without antibiotics as they did when antibiotics were given.[ii] To be honest, a lot of prescribing is still done more out of tradition than scientific fact. It’s hard to break old habits.
My point is this: if you don’t feel too bad, wait. Don’t see antibiotics as your only hope; see them as the last resort.
Tip 3: Use Other Treatments
Have you ever noticed that fast-moving streams are generally clear, while water that doesn’t circulate has stuff growing in it almost immediately? The same thing is true with mucous. One of the reasons your body puts out mucous is to flush out the respiratory tract and keep infection from coming. Using treatments that keep mucous flowing can prevent bacteria from moving in. Here are some ways to do this:
Drink lots of liquids. You have to stay hydrated to make mucous.
Humidify. Use of humidifiers, hot showers, and saline nose sprays can keep mucous flowing.
Irrigate. Some people enjoy pouring large amounts of fluid in their nose, but most of us are a little squeamish about nasal irrigation. It really works, but I don’t blame you if you take a pass on this one.
Medicate. Expectorants like guiafenacin, which is found in Mucinex and Robitussin, can break up phlegm. Decongestants can open up the sinuses and allow flow.
These treatments aren’t foolproof, but they can prevent some infections and they can make you feel better.
Tip #4: See Your Doctor if You Are Not Sure
Tell your symptoms accurately and express your concerns. Most doctors will listen to their patients and give antibiotics when appropriate. Don’t get upset if you don’t get an antibiotic. Remember, it’s much easier for the doc to give in and prescribe than it is for them to wait. Ask lots of questions and make sure you know what to watch out for when you leave.
It’s not a waste to come in for this kind of thing. It’s better to come in and find out you have nothing serious than it is to stay home when you need to go in.
Tip #5: Know Warning Signs
There are some things that should alert you of danger, which means you need an immediate trip to the doctor. Here are some of them:
Fever and a stiff neck – this could mean meningitis
Cough, fever, and shortness of breath – this could be pneumonia.
Sore throat and a high fever – this could be strep. Strep’s not a terrible infection, but untreated it could lead to more serious complications.
Persistent or severe abdominal pain – this could be appendicitis, gall bladder infection, or other serious problems.
Finally, really young and really old people should be treated with caution. The “Wait” rule doesn’t apply to infants under 4 months or frail elderly people. Be very cautious with these and other frail people.
That’s it for today’s extended podcast (sorry it went long). I didn’t intend that it be the final say, but I hope you now understand why sometimes it is better to wait than to run to antibiotics. If you want to learn more about antibiotics in the meat you eat, check out Nutrition Diva's episode on just that topic.
The diagnostic process is fascinating, and anyone who watches "House" knows that. In episode 47 I'll start a series on mystery medical diagnoses.
If you have questions you want answered, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Catch you next time! Stay Healthy!