Viruses, bacteria, and antibiotics: What you need to know to stay well

Like the muted diesel roar of school buses, earlier sunsets, pumpkins on doorsteps and frost on the ground, colds, influenza, ear, throat and sinus infections are as reliable an indicator of the return to autumn as the spectacular palette of changing leaves. With kids in close proximity, poor hand-washing habits, and everyone sneezing around us, our natural immunities to bacterial and viral infections are taxed, leaving us more likely to contract a variety of seasonal illnesses. And with the aches and pains, runny noses, itchy throats and increased body temperature, we’re off to the doctor in search of an antibiotic or other magic pill to cure us.

Many of the illnesses that wreak havoc in the autumn and winter are caused by bacteria or viruses, and it’s important to know the difference. Bacteria are single-celled organisms usually found all over the inside and outside of our bodies, except in the blood and spinal fluid. Many bacteria are not harmful. In fact, some are actually beneficial. However, disease-causing bacteria trigger illnesses, such as strep throat and some ear infections. Viruses are even smaller than bacteria. A virus cannot survive outside the body’s cells. It causes illnesses by invading healthy cells and reproducing.

Antibiotics, the so-called wonder drugs, are our chosen line of offense against many types of infections, but they don’t work against all. For example, we should not treat viral infections such as colds, the flu, sore throats (unless caused by strep), most coughs, and some ear infections with antibiotics.

Antibiotics are drugs that fight infections caused by bacteria. After the first use of antibiotics in the 1940s, they transformed medical care and dramatically reduced illness and death from infectious diseases. The term “antibiotic” originally referred to a natural compound produced by a fungus or another microorganism that kills bacteria which cause disease in humans or animals. Although antibiotics have many beneficial effects, their use has contributed to the problem of antibiotic resistance.

Why we should be concerned about antibiotic resistance

Antibiotic resistance is the ability of bacteria or other microbes to resist the effects of an antibiotic. Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria change in some ways that reduce or eliminate the effectiveness of drugs, chemicals, or other agents designed to cure or prevent infections. The bacteria survive and continue to multiply causing more harm. Almost every type of bacteria has become stronger and less responsive to antibiotic treatment. These antibiotic-resistant bacteria can quickly spread to family members, schoolmates, and co-workers, threatening the community with a new strain of infectious disease that is more difficult to cure and more expensive to treat.

An essential part of preventing the spread of infection in the community and at home is proper hygiene. This includes hand-washing and cleaning shared items and surfaces. Antibacterial-containing products, by the way, have not been proven to prevent the spread of infection better than products that do not contain antibacterial chemicals. More studies examining resistance issues related to these products are needed.

Smart use of antibiotics is the key to controlling the spread of resistance. If you or someone you care for is ill, talk with your physician about antibiotic resistance and whether or not antibiotics are likely to be beneficial for the illness. Here are some other useful tips to remember:

  • Do not take an antibiotic for a viral infection like colds, sore throats, the flu, and some ear infections.
  • Do not save some of your antibiotic for the next time you get sick. Discard any leftover medication once you have completed your prescribed course of treatment.
  • Take an antibiotic exactly as your healthcare provider tells you. Do not skip doses. Complete the prescribed course of treatment even if you are feeling better. If treatment stops too soon, some bacteria may survive and re-infect you.
  • Do not take antibiotics prescribed for someone else. The antibiotic may not be appropriate for your illness. Taking the wrong medicine may delay correct treatment and allow bacteria to multiply.
  • If your healthcare provider determines that you do not have a bacterial infection, ask about ways to help relieve your symptoms. Do not pressure your provider to prescribe an antibiotic.

By being responsible and knowing when to allow our bodies and nature to run their course, we’ll all be healthier for the long term!

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. Employees in this program have access to tools and information that can help improve their overall physical and mental well-being. The program is free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!