You have a busy week ahead, and no time to be sick, when you feel the symptoms coming on – chills, body aches, and fever. You remember the last time you needed an antibiotic when you experienced these symptoms with a strep throat infection. Naturally, it seems like you may need antibiotics again! When you are examined, it is discovered that what’s making you sick isn’t a bacterial infection after all, but a viral infection. You are surprised to learn that an antibiotic is not needed to treat this type of infection, but how do providers decide the best treatment, and why is it important that your infection is treated correctly?
Bacterial and viral illness are alike in that they can both cause symptoms that make you feel ill and are both microbes that can be spread from person to person. They are different in that only bacteria respond to antibiotics, viruses do not.
Over the past 80 years, antibiotics have transformed our ability to treat bacterial infections, but prescribing antibiotics when they are not needed has led to bacterial resistance. Interestingly, it’s not your body that becomes resistant to the antibiotic, but the bacteria, which means the bacteria develop the ability to defeat the drugs designed to kill them. This means that every time a person takes an antibiotic, sensitive bacteria may be killed, but the stronger bacteria are left to grow and multiply. When antibiotics do not work, infections may last longer, require more doctor visits or longer hospital stays, and can involve more expensive and toxic medications. Additionally, some resistant bacteria can spread to other people and are difficult to treat, possibly leading to death.
Antibiotic resistance isn’t the only concern for providers when prescribing antibiotics. Side effects are common, including but not limited to nausea, vomiting, diarrhea. Because antibiotics alter the microbiome of our bodies, they also kill the good bacteria meant to keep our bodies in balance, which can lead to yeast infections. Clostridium difficile infection is a very serious side effect of antibiotics and can lead to severe colon damage and death. Severe and life-threatening allergies to antibiotics are also possible.
If you do have to take antibiotics for a bacterial infection, make sure you take the prescribed dosage and always complete the course, even if you start to feel better. A probiotic may help replace the good bacteria in your gut, decreasing some of the digestive symptoms you may experience. Talk with your provider as well, to make sure the antibiotic prescribed is most narrowly targeted toward your infection. All antibiotics do not treat the same illnesses, so it’s important that the correct antibiotic is chosen for your bacterial infection.
Back to square one, you’re still feeling ill, even though now you know it’s a viral illness. What should you do? Usually, management of the symptoms, fluids, rest, and time will help. Talk with your provider about over the counter and prescription products to help alleviate the symptoms while your immune system fights the viral infection. Patients who are at high risk for infection, such as those receiving chemotherapy or with weakened immune systems may need close monitoring, or a back-up prescription of antibiotics. A lowered immune system due to a viral illness may lead to a secondary bacterial infection which could require antibiotics, so if you are not seeing improvement within the time frame discussed with your provider, you should follow up to make sure the illness is resolving.
And don’t forget – prevention is key! Wash your hands frequently, avoid sharing personal items such toothbrushes, towels, razors, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and talk to your provider about staying up to date on vaccinations to keep you healthy. When you feel ill, it’s always a good idea to get evaluated for recommendations to get you back on the road to wellness.