Health TipsNovember 3 2020

Antibiotics: When Are They Effective?

A man takes a prescription

Antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections, certain fungal infections and some kinds of parasites. To make it simple; the majority of the time you will ever receive an antibiotic will be to relieve and treat a bacterial infection.  The overuse of antibiotics is one of the most serious public health concerns in the United States. The state of Tennessee is ranked #3 in the country for the most dispensed antibiotics to the public. If antibiotics are used too often for things they can’t treat—like colds or viruses—they stop working effectively against bacteria when you really need them.

So, how can you tell the difference between a bacterial or viral infection?

Although both are too small to be seen, they’re quite different in structure. Viruses are tiny and replicate inside cells using the cells' own metabolic function. In contrast, bacteria are relatively large organisms, commonly reproduce by themselves outside of cells, and have many metabolic functions that antibacterial drugs (antibiotics) can target. Therefore, antiviral drugs are much more difficult to develop than antibacterial drugs. Both can develop resistance to antibiotics/antiviral drugs if used to treat an infection that it cannot cure. Consequently, the future effectiveness of the drug is diminished. According to the CDDEP, once a bacteria develops resistance to a given antibiotic, it often will not respond to other antibiotics that share similar modes of action.

Common Bacterial Infections

It is important to note that not all bacteria are bad. In fact, only 1% of bacteria is harmful and can even fight off the bad ones.

  • Strep throat
  • Some ear infections
  • Yeast infections
  • Acne
  • Bacterial Meningitis
  • Lyme disease
  • Gonorrhea
  • Syphilis
  • Diphtheria
  • Tuberculosis

Signs and Symptoms of a Bacterial Infection

  • Swelling, pain and discharge in the affected body region
  • Fever
  • Colored nasal discharge
  • Indigestion
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Stomach pain
  • Dehydration
  • Painful acne and boils
  • Stiffness in neck and back

Common Viral Infections

Most commonly, viral infections involve the nose, throat and upper airways.

  • Common Cold
  • Influenza (the flu)
  • Bronchitis
  • STD’s (Herpes, HIV/AIDS, & HPV etc.)
  • Gastroenteritis (stomach flu)
  • Some ear infections
  • Croup
  • Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)
  • Measles, Mumps & rubella
  • Chickenpox
  • Viral hepatitis
  • Viral meningitis
  • Smallpox
  • Polio

Signs and Symptoms of a Viral Infection

Common symptoms of viral diseases include flu-like symptoms and malaise. These symptoms can appear within 1-3 days after being infected.

  • Fever
  • Diarrhea and/or vomiting
  • Runny nose and sore throat (swollen glands in neck)
  • Headaches and body aches

Presence of one of these symptoms does not dictate that you have either a viral or bacterial infection. A thorough evaluation by your doctor is recommended before starting or stopping any prescribed medication.

Although antibiotics are useful for treating bacterial infections, they are worthless against viral infections. Antibiotics can actually make colds worse by killing beneficial bacteria and creating an environment more favorable to the cold virus.

If prescribed, take antibiotics responsibly. They are powerful in fighting certain infections, but they are not a cure-all.