Healthy Living

Avoiding 'Superbugs': Are Antibiotics the Answer?

Mar. 30, 2016

When cold symptoms are making you miserable, you may think an antibiotic is the right remedy. But overuse and misuse of antibiotics can create antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or “superbugs.” UR Medicine Primary Care’s Dr. Mike Gavin explains why, more often than not, an antibiotic won’t fix the problem, and it may create with cold blowing nose

Signs of Spring are all around us, including people coping with coughs, runny noses, and congestion. This may eventually lead us to our doctors and pharmacies in search of relief. While your doctor’s door should always been open when you’re in need, at this time of year, most of these symptoms result from viral infections and allergies.

Depending on what is causing your symptoms, they may resolve with rest, fluids and time, or possibly allergy medications. When a virus or allergies are the culprit, antibiotics aren’t the solution since they have no effect these issues.

Antibiotics can treat bacterial infections, such as strep throat, a bad skin infection (cellulitis), or a sinus infection. But if antibiotics are taken when they aren’t needed, bacteria can become invincible to them, making them much harder to treat in the future. Overuse and misuse of antibiotics causes antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or superbugs. If more superbugs are created, we will not have any effective antibiotics to treat bacterial infections.

How can we stop the creation of superbugs and, at the same time, make sure a cold is really a viral infection? Here are a few tips to help you sort out what you have, how to treat it, and when to call your doctor.

  • Most colds are viral infections. Symptoms of viral infections are cough, runny nose, sore throat, and head and chest congestion. You may also experience low-grade fever (under 100.4°F). Antibiotics are ineffective against these infections. Your symptoms will generally start to improve after seven to 10 days. Over-the-counter medications may help ease your symptoms but will not make the cold go away any faster.
  • Don’t rule out allergies. Even if you've never had allergies, you may start this year. As the weather gets warmer, several different plants and molds become more prevalent in the environment. If you have a runny nose, congestion, itchy eyes, and possibly a cough, without any low-grade fever, your symptoms may be from allergies. Allergies can even make you feel run down and fatigued, and mimic upper respiratory infections. As we get older, allergies can become more significant. You may try over-the-counter medications for allergies, but if you’re not sure, ask your doctor.
  • Coughs can last for a while. Coughs during or after colds (or from post nasal drip due to allergies) can last for several weeks, especially for people with asthma or chronic obstructive lung disease (COPD). Talk with your doctor about over-the-counter treatments for this. It’s important to know that over-the-counter medicines to treat coughs are generally not effective in children under the age of 7.
  • Know when to call your doctor.
    • If you’re having trouble breathing, fevers (100.4°F or higher), or sinus pain for more than a week. 
    • Whenever a baby younger than 3 months of age has a fever, he or she should be evaluated as soon as possible.
  • A sore throat isn’t always strep throat. But when you also have a fever (temperature of 100.4°F or higher), you should call your doctor.
  • Stay home with the flu. Flu season is with us until April and May! If your symptoms point to flu—like fever, nausea, vomiting, chills, diarrhea—stay home from work or school.
  • Take antibiotics correctly. If you do have a bacterial infection and your doctor orders an antibiotic, always finish the entire prescription. Even if you are feeling better, or you think the antibiotic isn’t working, always finish taking the medication as directed. In addition to curing your infection, taking it properly will help prevent antibiotic resistance, and hopefully the development of superbugs.

A little prevention goes a long way. If you’re around others who may be sick, make sure you are washing your hands frequently, getting enough sleep, and eating healthy. If you smoke, now is a great time to quit since smoking can increase your risk of getting viral and bacterial infections. If you do have a cold, washing your hands and covering your cough are some of the best ways to prevent passing it to others at home or in the workplace.

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Michael Gavin, MD

Michael J. Gavin, M.D., cares for adults and children at UR Medicine Primary Care—Bushnell’s Basin.