Taking antibiotics when you have a virus may do more harm than good. Taking antibiotics when they are not needed increases your risk of getting an infection later that may resist antibiotic treatment.
Who Needs Antibiotics for Flu Complications?
When you have the flu, your body’s immune system may be weakened. The lungs become irritated and inflamed. Both make is easier for bacteria to invade your body. What kind of bacterial complications can develop?
♦ Pneumonia, infection of the lungs
♦ Bronchitis, infection of the airways that lead to the lungs
♦ Sinusitis, infection of the sinuses
♦ Ear infections, which are most common in children
The most worrying, and most common, is pneumonia. “Bacterial pneumonia is the most likely cause of death in older people with the flu,” says Christine Hay, MD, assistant professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center. “It can be a serious problem for young children with the flu as well.”
Who’s most at risk? The odds that you’ll end up with a bacterial complication depend on several factors. If you’re a healthy young adult, the chances are low. But the flu and its complications are considered high risk for people who:
♦ Are pregnant during flu season
♦ Are over 50 years old
♦ Are under 2 years old
♦ Have a chronic lung disease such as asthma, bronchitis, or other conditions
♦ Have heart or kidney disease
♦ Have diabetes or another metabolic disorder
♦ Have severe anemia
♦ Have a suppressed immune system, either from a disease or its treatment
♦ Live in a nursing home or care facility
If you fit any of these categories, you need to be especially aware of the signs of a secondary bacterial infection. And, of course, you need to get the flu vaccine unless your doctor tells you otherwise.
Why Won’t Antibiotics Cure Cold or Flu?
Antibiotics only cure certain infections due to bacteria and if taken carelessly, you may get more serious health problems than you bargained for.
With any illness, it is critical to address the underlying cause of the illness, whether it’s bacterial or viral. Antibiotics will not kill cold or flu viruses.
Should I Avoid Antibiotics Altogether?
Not at all. Antibiotics can save people’s lives, and if you need them, you should get them as quickly as you can. Since only a doctor can prescribe antibiotics, this means that you should talk to your doctor if you think you might need them (as opposed to taking your friend’s leftover antibiotics from last winter’s illness, for example).
However, it is the grave over-reliance and inappropriate use of antibiotics that have contributed to the global antibiotic resistance crisis that we face.
A study by the CDC showed that many adults believe that if they are sick enough to see a doctor for a cold, they should get an antibiotic treatment. The study also showed that patients are not aware of the consequences of taking the drugs if they are not needed. And when antibiotics are misused, bacteria can become resistant.
What Are Antivirals?
Antivirals are medications that reduce the ability of flu viruses to multiply. The CDC considers antiviral drugs as a “second line of defense against the flu” after getting the flu vaccine. When taken at the onset of flu, these drugs help decrease the severity and duration of flu symptoms. They can also be used in cases to help prevent the flu, but they are not a replacement for getting the flu vaccine.