Antibiotics: Just What the Doctor (Shouldn’t Have) Ordered

When was the last time you had a common cold, like a sore throat, an earache or a sinus infection? These are some of the most common medical problems, and they account for millions of visits to the doctor every year. The chances are good that you have suffered from one of these symptoms in the past year or two, and that you went to a doctor to receive treatment for your condition.

The problem is that one-third of patients with earaches, sore throats or sinus infections are given treatment that is not only inadequate, it can even be quite dangerous. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that doctors regularly overprescribe antibiotics, especially the wrong kinds of antibiotics, to patients with these common problems, per Consumer Reports.

Why We Take Antibiotics

Antibiotics are intended to aid a patient's recovery time by fighting bacterial infections. However, many of the infections associated with the common cold are not caused by bacterial infections. They are often viral infections, meaning that those antibiotics you're taking aren't helping you get better.

If you find that concerning, you might be even more alarmed by the fact that, instead of prescribing antibiotics that fight the bacteria at the root of our infections, doctors often prescribe antibiotics that kill off a wide range of bacteria. These "broad spectrum" antibiotics also kill off bacteria that our body needs to keep us healthy. When we take antibiotics that attack a broad spectrum of bacteria in our body, we become more vulnerable to other types of infections.

Certain types of antibiotics, many of which are wrongly prescribed for sinus infections or earaches, pose great risks for patients. Levaquin and Cipro, for example, can cause serious complications. These antibiotics are classified as fluoroquinolone antibiotics, and they are strongly linked to muscular and nervous system damage, among other complications. These medications are supposed to be given to patients who have very serious, life-threatening infections, such as pneumonia or anthrax. Instead, they are often prescribed for more common, less serious infections – such as, infections associated with the common cold.

Patients are also regularly given antibiotics that are relatively ineffective, such as the commonly used Z-Pak, even though up to one-fourth of the bacteria causing common infections have grown resistant to the drug. Yet, doctors prescribe these drugs and patients take them, in large part, because they are easier to take than other more effective antibiotics.

What are the More Effective Antibiotics?

Amoxicillin and penicillin are typically considered by medical professionals to be the most effective at fighting bacterial infections causing sinus infections and earaches. Taking these antibiotics requires a little more time (patients take them more frequently and for longer periods than their less effective counterparts) but they are more likely to address the infection causing their symptoms.

What Should Patients Know About Taking Antibiotics?

First, it is important to realize that so many of the infections that cause earaches or sore throats are viral and should not be treated by antibiotics. If your conditions last longer than 10 days or if they are recurring, then seeking medical treatment is probably in your best interest. If your doctor swabs your throat and finds out that you have strep throat, you might need to take antibiotics for treatment.

You can also ask your doctor if you should refrain from taking antibiotics altogether. Pay attention to the antibiotics your doctor prescribes. If you aren't allergic to amoxicillin or penicillin, you can ask your doctor specifically about these drugs.

The lesson we can learn from the medical study and the report from Consumer Reports is that patients should strive to be knowledgeable about the drugs commonly prescribed by doctors. Unfortunately, we don't always walk away from a doctor's office with a prescription that is in our best interest to take.

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