Holiday, Virus Season Rings in Reminder to Protect Antibiotic Benefits

UM pharmacy professor weighs in on importance of using antibiotics wisely

As the holiday season approaches with its usual festivities, travel and time indoors, respiratory viruses will inevitably appear and spread through households. So, this is a good time to address the common misconception that antibiotics are the cure for such ailments.

The truth is that antibiotics do not treat viruses, and using them for common colds, which are caused by viruses, could cause harm to our individual well-being and the health of the larger community. With Antibiotic Awareness Week running Nov. 18-24, health care providers are drawing attention to the nuances of antibiotic use.

Antibiotics are, no doubt, lifesaving. Because of antibiotics, people are less likely to die from simple wounds that become infected. Childbirth is much safer, advances such as transplants and cancer treatments are possible, and fewer people die from communicable diseases around the world.

Since penicillin was first discovered nearly 100 years ago, antibiotics have played a huge role in improving the quality of our lives and in extending life expectancy by nearly a quarter of a century.

But antibiotics are not magic pills that can cure every infection. Antibiotics do not defend against viruses, which means they are ineffective against colds, runny noses, most sore throats, COVID-19 and the flu. Even some bacterial infections that cause sinus infections and ear infections will get better on their own without antibiotics.

Jamie Wagner

Taking an antibiotic “just in case” can be counterproductive and even harmful.

Using antibiotics when they are not needed or using the wrong antibiotic can contribute to a phenomenon called antibiotic resistance. When bacteria are exposed to these powerful drugs, they can develop mutations that render them resistant to the drug. As vulnerable bacteria are killed off, resistant ones are left behind to grow and spread. When this happens, illnesses caused by these resistant bacteria are harder to treat.

Scientists believe climate change and air pollution speed the process of drug resistance. As microbes adapt to warming temperatures, they become harder to kill. Meanwhile, extreme conditions causing floods and overcrowding across the globe contribute to unsafe water supplies, which expose people to microbes that cause infection.

Antibiotics are often used in agriculture and livestock, which can further worsen human exposure to drug-resistant bacteria through consumption of animal products and even produce. Therefore, it’s increasingly important to think about the interconnectedness of human, animal and environmental health – known as the One Health approach. This holistic perspective acknowledges that the health of one component is intricately linked to the health of the others.

Moreover, certain communities are affected more severely by antibiotic-resistant infections, including Black and nonwhite Hispanic communities, and those living in poverty who may have lower access to quality health care and quality food sources.

The bottom line is that antibiotic resistance has multiple causes and solutions, including some actions you can take to make a difference. Steps you can take to protect your health and combat antibiotic resistance:

  1. When you get sick, understand that most respiratory illnesses – such as the common cold – are caused by viruses. Have realistic expectations and understand that antibiotics are often not the answer. Some illnesses just take time and rest to get better. If your symptoms are not getting better or are getting worse, then ask your health care provider if antibiotics may be needed for a more complicated infection.
  2. Seek out and support conventional and organic food brands that discourage routine use of antibiotics in animals. This information is increasingly appearing on labels and can guide your decisions.
  3. Stay up to date on recommended vaccines against respiratory viruses such as SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, RSV and the flu. Preventing these illnesses will also help prevent exposure to unnecessary antibiotics.

Navigating the holiday season and beyond, remember that antibiotics are both a blessing and a societal responsibility. By understanding their benefits, recognizing the threats of overuse and adopting preventive strategies, we can collectively safeguard these invaluable tools for the benefit of our global community.

Jamie Wagner is a clinical associate professor at the University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy and is a member of the Antimicrobial Stewardship Committee at the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America.