Why won’t my doctor give me antibiotics?

Pills and tablets and antibiotics in a paper cup

Public Health England is urging GPs to reduce the prescribing of antibiotics and if I’m honest, I think they have good reason to do so.In recent years we have seen the emergence of far too many resistant bacteria. Many of you will have heard of MRSA (methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus) and C. Diff (clostridium difficile), which are both serious infections that can kill because they have become resistant to currently available antibiotics.

There seems to be a misconception that if an individual has several courses of antibiotics, they may in some way become resistant to further courses of antibiotics. In fact it is the bacteria themselves that develop the resistance, not the person.

Taking antibiotics isn’t the problem, it’s taking them at the wrong time that’s got us into trouble

We know that most coughs, colds and sore throats are caused by viruses, not bacteria, and antibiotics do not work against viruses. But, widespread prescribing of antibiotics in these circumstances means that background bacteria are exposed to the antibiotics and can start to mutate and develop resistance. Staphylococcus aureus for example lives harmlessly in the noses or on the skin of one in three of us, but if it should become a resistant strain and be passed to a vulnerable person, the consequences could be very serious. Hence the drive to reduce unnecessary prescribing and reserve antibiotic treatment for infections that really need it, such as pneumonia and kidney infections.

If you’ve had a cough or a cold in the past and were given antibiotics then got better, you’re bound to believe it was the antibiotics that helped you and will ask your doctor for similar treatment the next time you develop symptoms. The truth is, your previous illness was almost certainly viral and your improvement would have been because your body was already fighting off the infection.

Most coughs and colds will clear within a week or two and your pharmacist is the best person to consult for advice on symptom relief, whilst you recover. You should really only see your doctor if:

  • Your symptoms persist for more than three weeks
  • You have difficulties breathing
  • You cough up blood
  • You notice a sudden deterioration in your symptoms

You can reduce your chances of getting a cold by keeping your immune system in peak condition with a healthy diet, regular exercise and a good sleep pattern and by washing your hands regularly. Yes, you read that correctly: most viruses are not in fact spread by coughs and sneezes but by hand-to-hand contact. We know that viruses can survive outside the human body for many hours so by taking care to wipe down surfaces and regularly washing your hands, you can effectively reduce your chances of contracting a viral infection.

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