By Julia Belluz on November 16, 2015
For years, public health experts have been practically begging people to stop taking antibiotics for flu and the common cold.
For one, the drugs don’t help: Antibiotics treat bacterial infections. Colds and flu are caused by viruses. So taking antibiotics for these illnesses is an entirely futile and wasteful exercise.
But even more importantly, the more we take antibiotics — particularly when they’re not necessary — the more we increase the chances of helping develop antibiotic-resistant bacteria. These “superbugs,” as they’re known, have become a huge public health threat around the world, killing thousands of people every year and, researchers expect, many millions more in the coming decades.
Yet despite all the warnings, the message doesn’t seem to be getting through.
The World Health Organization recently conducted a multi-country survey to test people’s knowledge about antibiotics. And a full 64 percent of respondents said they believed antibiotics could be used to treat flus and colds.
For the love of God, people, stop taking antibiotics for flus and colds. It isn’t helpful in any way. And the abuse of these drugs contributes to a huge public health problem. So just stop.
But it doesn’t end there. The WHO survey also found that 32 percent of respondents said they believed they don’t need to complete their prescription of antibiotics and can stop taking them as soon as they feel better. This is another big mistake! Experts say you should always take the full course of antibiotics you are prescribed. Otherwise, you create an environment in which the weakest bacteria are killed off but the strongest “superbugs” survive and multiply.
Too many doctors still prescribe antibiotics for colds — often because patients ask
What’s most disturbing is that health professionals are a huge part of this problem — prescribing antibiotics when they know full well that they shouldn’t.
A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that doctors treat 71 percent of bronchitis cases with treated antibiotics. They know this is wrong because bronchitis is usually caused by viruses. Yet they prescribe antibiotics anyway, usually at the patient’s behest.
Overall, we’re taking way too many antibiotics. According to the journal Nature, the average American child has been given 10 to 20 courses of antibiotics by the time he or she reaches adulthood. That’s one dose every one or two years. The best estimates suggest that fully half of antibiotic prescriptions may be unnecessary.
There’s a lot of blame to go around here. In the WHO survey, 81 percent of respondents said they were prescribed or provided antibiotics by a doctor or nurse and picked it up at a pharmacy or medical store. Maybe if patients were better informed, they’d stop asking for the drugs when they’re not necessary. But doctors and health professionals need to step it up, too.