We have entered that time of year: cold season. When a cold develops we feel uncomfortable with our symptoms, and it seems that almost everyone around us has similar symptoms. As bad as you, or even your child, may feel, it's important to remember that within 10 to 14 days the symptoms will likely improve and there's no need to take an antibiotic. This is because antibiotics only treat bacteria, like strep throat or some pneumonia. Colds, sore throats and the flu are caused by viruses, which antibiotics won't kill, prevent or stop from spreading. The only treatment for a cold is rest and time.
Children develop at least six to eight colds, or upper respiratory infections, a year. Understandably, parents often take them to a health care provider, but this may lead to inappropriate prescribing of antibiotics for a viral infection. Research shows that children are given thousands of unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions each year. Taking antibiotics when they aren't needed can cause bacteria to become resistant to the antibiotic, and then the drug may not work when you really need it.
There are additional problems with antibiotic use. It can lead to life-threatening allergic reactions, interactions with other medications and a severe form of diarrhea caused by the bacteria Clostridium difficile, often called C diff. Antibiotics are the leading cause of adverse drug reactions in children. In fact, one study showed that antibiotics were responsible for 19 percent of emergency department visits related to adverse reactions to medications.
Though the majority of infections are caused by viruses, there are times when we need antibiotics to treat potentially deadly bacterial infections. When used in the correct manner, antibiotics have saved countless lives. As a pediatric infectious disease specialist, I would be powerless without them. Through the appropriate use of antibiotics, I have been able to treat thousands of hospitalized children. But due to inappropriate use, many types of bacteria have become or can become resistant to antibiotics. That means I lose these life-saving drugs as a treatment option. Try to imagine yourself or your child with a life-threatening infection that is untreatable.
So what can we do as a community to improve antibiotic prescribing practices? Education is the key. Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention held its annual Get Smart About Antibiotics Week to raise awareness about the appropriate use of antibiotics. Many hospitals across the United States are doing their part to prescribe antibiotics appropriately and improve patient care by bringing together infectious disease specialists, hospital pharmacists and other care team members to work on ensuring that antibiotics are used only when needed, and then to choose the most effective antibiotic. Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg is part of a leading pediatric collaborative group known as SHARPS (Sharing Antimicrobial Reports for Pediatric Stewardship), which is dedicated to using antibiotics wisely and improving the quality of care for patients.
All of us can make a difference in reducing unnecessary antibiotic use. The expectation of patients and their families should be: "I'm going to the health care provider to make sure there is nothing seriously wrong with me. If the doctor says it's a virus, I should not expect antibiotics." Education and awareness are important. Adapting healthy lifestyles and improving equal access to primary care, as well as ensuring that children receive life-saving vaccines, will also help. Let's all do our part to reduce unnecessary antibiotic use.
Learn more at tbtim.es/antibiotics.
Dr. David Berman is an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg.