Antibiotics: when do I need them?

Most of us have probably taken antibiotics before, but statistics indicate antibiotics are prescribed to nearly half of the people in Australian each year, but much of this use may be inappropriate. So it’s no wonder many are confused about these types of medications and how and when they’re best used.

What are antibiotics?

Antibiotics are medicines that fight infections caused by bacteria. While some bacteria can be good for our health, some can cause illness if they are introduced or migrate somewhere they’re not meant to be, or if they multiply and cause an imbalance in the types of bacteria in a certain location.
Antibiotics either kill bacteria or stop them from reproducing, thereby helping the body’s immune system to fight the bacterial infection. Antibiotics have saved millions of lives since they were first introduced in the 1930s.

What are antibiotics used for?

Antibiotics are used to treat a range of conditions caused by bacteria including respiratory tract infections like pneumonia and whooping cough. They can also be used to treat urinary tract infections, skin infections and infected wounds.
Judith Ngai, a community pharmacist who also works at Bupa, says there are different types of antibiotics.
“Each targets either specific bacteria, known as ‘narrow spectrum’ antibiotics, or a specific range of bacteria, known as ‘broad spectrum’ antibiotics,” she says.
However, antibiotics are not always required to treat bacterial infections.
“In healthy people, many infections will go away on their own with the help of your immune system. Your doctor will prescribe antibiotics only if your infection has been caused by bacteria and you’re unlikely to fight it off on your own,” says Ngai.
And in some cases, repeat prescriptions of antibiotics may be necessary. If this is the case, follow your doctor’s instructions and take the full course as directed, even if you start to feel better.
A pharmicist scanning some medicine for a customer

What about antibiotic resistance?

Antibiotic resistance is a serious issue.The more we use antibiotics, the more likely bacteria are to change so they are no longer vulnerable to this type of medication. This is called ‘antibiotic resistance’ and it may mean that, in the future, many antibiotics won’t work when we need them to.
“When used correctly, antibiotics can help save lives,” explains Ngai.
“However, a lot of current use is inappropriate — that is, antibiotics are used when they’re not needed, prescribed wrongly against a certain type of bacteria, or used for too short or too long a time to be effective. Many people believe they need antibiotics if they have a cold or flu, but these illnesses are caused by viruses and can’t be treated by antibiotics.”

Dr Amanda McCullough from the Centre for Research in Evidence-Based Practice at Bond University – winner of the 2018 Bupa Health Foundation Emerging Health Researcher Awards – is studying antibiotic resistance in general practice and understands what it could look like if nothing changes:

“By 2050, around 10 million people each year will be dying because of antibiotic resistance,” said Dr McCullough.

Her research has shown that Australian GPs prescribe nearly six million antibiotics annually, which Dr McCullough has demonstrated is 4 - 9 times as high as recommended by Australian Guidelines.

Can we do anything about antibiotic resistance?

Yes. There are several things you can do to help prevent antibiotic resistance. For example:
  • Understand that colds and flu do not require antibiotics because they are caused by viruses.
  • Only use an antibiotic if it is really necessary.
  • Take your antibiotics as prescribed by your doctor for as long as you are directed.
  • Try to avoid infections and prevent them from spreading with good hygiene habits.
In addition, Ngai advises taking unused or unfinished supplies of antibiotics back to the pharmacy for disposal.
“Don’t keep them to use at a different or later date, or give them to others to use, as it may not be the right antibiotic for that infection.”
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