Medicine Isn’t Always The Answer To An Illness  

Understanding the difference between viral and bacterial is key

DAYTON, Ohio (September 10, 2013) – Being told the virus you are suffering from won’t get better with a prescription medication can be a hard pill to swallow, especially when we live in an age of immediate gratification.

But treating a viral illness with something like antibiotics will only expose one’s body to a medication they don’t need and place them at risk for potential allergic reactions and unneeded side effects of the medicine, said Meghan Brewster, MD, a Premier HealthNet physician who practices at Beavercreek Family Medicine.

“There are common side effects that people think of with antibiotics such as diarrhea and vomiting,” Dr. Brewster said. “The bigger picture is that using antibiotics when it is not necessary can lead to antibiotic resistance.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, taking an antibiotic when it is not needed can cause some bacteria to become resistant to the antibiotic. These resistant bacteria are stronger and harder to kill. They can stay in a person’s body and can cause severe illnesses that can’t be cured with antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance – when antibiotics can no longer cure bacterial infections – has been a concern for years and is considered one of the world’s most critical public health threats, according to the CDC.

Most illnesses are caused by two kinds of germs: bacteria or viruses. Antibiotics can cure bacterial infections, but not viral infections.

“Viruses are protein entities that reproduce and cause infections - like a common cold - that your immune system typically takes care of on its own,” Dr. Brewster said. “Bacteria, on the other hand, are one cell organisms that can cause infections that a different part of your immune system can attack and get rid of and that will, in some incidences, need antibiotics to take care of it.”

Bacterial infections cause illnesses such as strep throat, some pneumonia and certain sinus infections. Viruses cause the common cold, most coughs and the flu. Antibiotics that are used for a virus will not cure the infection, make the person feel better or keep others from catching the illness, according to the CDC. Dr. Brewster said that with some illnesses, like a sinus infection, it can be difficult to distinguish whether it is viral or bacterial. That is why it is important to allow time to tell.

“There is definitely the misconception that an antibiotic will help a prolonged cold or illness,” she said. “Most of them are viral in nature and in five to seven days your body will take care of it and you will feel better. But if you come in to the doctor on day two and you get a five-day course of antibiotics and then you feel better by day seven you might think it was due to the antibiotic. Some people think an antibiotic is what they need whereas their body would have done what it was supposed to do all along.”

The best way a person can determine if they should see a doctor for a possible bacterial infection is if their illness has lasted longer than seven to 10 days or if they are having a temperature of 101.4 degrees or higher. The CDC urges patients to make wise decisions such as not demanding antibiotics when a doctor says they are not needed and not taking antibiotics prescribed for someone else.

Dr. Brewster said there has been increased awareness in recent years about antibiotics and it is something she makes a priority with her own patients to discuss.

“I try to make it a part of each visit,” she said. “I try to take a few minutes to explain, this is the point at which they will need an antibiotic and this is why they won’t need one.”

To learn more about the right use for antibiotics or to find a primary care physician visit

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