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.
That's not to mention the damage antibiotics do to the gut microbiome, wiping out good bacteria in the body that keep us healthy.
Yet despite all the warnings, the message doesn't seem to be getting through.
Recently, a group of researchers and health officials published a study in JAMA that estimated the extent of antibiotic overprescription in the US: They found 30 percent of antibiotics doled out in emergency rooms and doctors' offices are unnecessary. That amounts to 47 million prescriptions every year.
Even worse: The majority of unnecessary prescriptions were for respiratory illnesses caused by viruses — colds, sore throats, bronchitis, and sinus and ear infections — which don't even respond to antibiotics!
For the love of God, people, stop taking antibiotics for flus and colds. It isn't helpful in any way. Antibiotics kill bacteria, not the viruses that cause these illnesses. And the abuse of these drugs contributes to a huge public health problem. So just stop.
Too many doctors still prescribe antibiotics for colds — often because patients ask
What's most disturbing is that health professionals who know better are a huge part of this problem — prescribing antibiotics when they know full well that they shouldn't. (When I asked doctors why they do it, they mentioned a mixture of patient demand and uncertainty about a diagnosis.)
But the amount of inappropriate prescribing is staggering. Another study in JAMA found that doctors treat 71 percent of bronchitis cases with treated antibiotics. Again, doctors know this is wrong because bronchitis is usually caused by viruses. Yet they prescribe antibiotics anyway.
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.
There's a lot of blame to go around here. In a World Health Organization survey on global antibiotic use, 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.
- Tyson Foods will stop using human antibiotics in its chickens by 2017
- California enacted the strictest law yet on antibiotic use in farms
- Doctors know they shouldn't give antibiotics for bronchitis but do it anyway
- There's a superbug outbreak in California. But it's really a global problem.