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Got the flu? Antibiotics aren’t for you

Flu season is here, and with the help of the cold weather and virus mutations, this flu season is projected to be worse than normal. If you’re feeling under the weather, you want to kick your symptoms to the curb and start feeling better as soon as possible. For that reason, many people with the flu, sore throat, or milder respiratory illness like a cold will go to the doctor to ask for antibiotics.

But are antibiotics always the right solution?

“Antibiotics are, in a sense, miracle drugs,” said Dr. Donna Wolk, director of Microbiology at Geisinger. “Ever since penicillin was discovered, we’ve grown in our ability to fight infections by leaps and bounds. But antibiotics have their limits, overuse has created drug-resistance, and they are ultimately ineffective against the flu and other viral illnesses. In fact, antibiotics may do more harm than good if you have the flu. They won’t help you feel better and they can cause other health problems.”

Consider this: Some research claims that half of antibiotic prescriptions aren’t necessary. In the general population, each winter viral respiratory infections are far more common than bacterial infections. 

The wrong tool for the job

“Bacteria make you sick by entering the body and disrupting bodily functions. Antibiotics kill bacteria and other microorganisms,” said Dr. Wolk, “However, the flu is not caused by bacteria. It’s a virus, and antibiotics won’t help to combat viruses.”

The reason is that viruses infect your body in a different way. Viruses infect your cells and multiply inside of them. For the virus, your cells act as a sort of “Trojan horse” so that they can reproduce. Because they hide in your cells, antibiotics aren’t able to affect viruses in the same way.

Taking antibiotics for a virus is potentially dangerous. Although antibiotics kill both good and bad bacteria, they can miss bacteria like Clostridium difficile (C-diff). As a result, after taking antibiotics, it’s possible to get a C-diff infection, which causes severe diarrhea and can require emergency medical attention. Antibiotics can also cause abdominal pain, as well as yeast infections like vaginosis or thrush.

In addition, the overzealous use of antibiotics contributes to the rise of “super bugs” or antibiotic resistant bacteria, a type of bacteria that poses a huge public health threat, according to the World Health Organization.  

“The best way to avoid getting the flu is to get vaccinated,” said Dr. Wolk. “The flu shot may not be 100 percent effective, because public health officials and vaccine producers have the difficult task of predicting which strain of flu will be the most prevalent in a given season. For example, the 2017-2018 flu shot is estimated to be 10-30 percent effective, but it is still recommended as a precaution. Even if you do get sick after getting the vaccine, it’s likely that your illness won’t be as severe.”

What should you do if you’re sick?
If you feel ill, go to the doctor. Talk to your doctor about whether you have a bacterial or viral infection and what the best treatment is. If it’s bacterial, antibiotics can help. If it’s viral, and not the flu, it needs to run its course. Viruses are “self-limiting,” meaning they will go away with or without treatment. In addition, there are plenty of home remedies, such as steam baths or tea with honey that people find effective.

However, if you have the flu and seek treatment early enough, in the first two days, doctors can prescribe anti-viral medications to shorten the length of the sickness, and limit its severity. If found later in the illness, then over-the-counter medication may still help treat some of the symptoms of the flu.

If you notice that you’re not getting better after 10 days from a cold or flu or if your symptoms are getting worse at any time, talk to your doctor.

People at high risk of flu complications include young children, adults 65 years of age and older, pregnant women, and people with certain medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease. Vaccines, plenty of rest and proper dietary choices will always help your immune system fight the flu. To protect others from colds and flu, stay at home except to seek medical care, cover your cough and wash your hands often.

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Man with flu symptoms lying in bed.