Antibiotics no cure for colds or flu

And using an antibiotic when not needed makes patients more vulnerable to antibiotic-resistant infections

By Guylène Thériault and Wendy Levinson

Cold and flu season for many Canadians means getting ready to have their lives and routines thrown off by painful and annoying symptoms.

This can mean days off work or school dealing with sore throats, nasal congestion and fever. For parents, it can be challenging to comfort young kids with fever, coughing or ear pain.

As doctors, we know that both physicians and patients would love a quick fix – a magic bullet to deal with these symptoms. Patients want to get their lives back to normal as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, antibiotics are not usually the answer.

Antibiotics are commonly misused because people mistakenly believe they will treat the symptoms of colds and flus. In fact, fever, cough and ear pain are usually due to a virus – and viruses aren’t affected by antibiotics.

More than half of all antibiotic prescriptions in Canada are estimated to be unnecessary – and ineffective.

Common conditions that are usually viral in nature but that are often prescribed antibiotics unnecessarily include sinus infections, ear infections and chest colds (or bronchitis). Antibiotics don’t typically help for any of these conditions and the symptoms will get better with simple rest and time.

It’s hard for us as physicians not to be able to offer a cure, and difficult sometimes for our patients to accept that there isn’t much to be done aside from managing their symptoms and waiting it out.

A good first step is for doctors and patients to have a conversation about the downsides of unnecessary antibiotics.

What harm can taking unnecessary antibiotics do?

Plenty.

When trying to treat symptoms that are caused by viral infections, antibiotics don’t help and can actually make patients feel worse. Antibiotics work by stopping illness-causing bacteria from growing and multiplying. When diseases are viral in origin rather than bacterial, antibiotics have no impact.

Using an antibiotic when not needed also promotes the growth of bacteria that are resistant to commonly-used antibiotics. This makes patients, especially the elderly, more vulnerable to antibiotic-resistant infections and undermines the good that antibiotics can do when they’re truly needed.

There are also side effects to taking antibiotics; about one in four people who take antibiotics experience stomach upset, dizziness or skin rashes.

There’s a new tool that you may notice in your doctor’s office to help have conversations about when antibiotics aren’t necessary – it’s called a viral prescription pad. This is a tear-off sheet similar to what you might receive for a prescription, except it contains information about symptom-relieving strategies for fevers, aches and pains. It also explains the risks of unnecessary antibiotics and offers examples of when you should go back to the doctor should your symptoms worsen.

Receiving no antibiotics for a cold or flu doesn’t mean no treatment. It just means a different approach.

One way to start the conversation about whether an antibiotic is really necessary is to use these three questions developed by Choosing Wisely Canada when talking with your doctor:

Do I really need antibiotics?

What are the risks?

Are there simpler, safer options?

Dr. Guylène Thériault is a family physician who practises family medicine in Gatineau, Qué. She is the assistant dean of Distributed Medical Education, in the Department of Family Medicine at McGill University. Dr. Wendy Levinson is the chair of Choosing Wisely Canada, a contributor with EvidenceNetwork.ca, which is based at the University of Winnipeg, and a professor of Medicine at the University of Toronto. © Troy Media

Just Posted

Police chase ends in two arrests

Suspects in stolen truck evade RCMP from Alberta border to Clearwater area

Barriere family airlifted to Vancouver due to carbon monoxide exposure have now returned home

A family of five from Barriere was transported to Vancouver for medical… Continue reading

TNRD renews Dangerous Dogs Contract for area

Highlights from the Thompson-Nicola Regional District (TNRD) Board of Directors’ meeting of Nov. 22

Milobar wants to see details of NDP’s Clean BC Plan

Jessica Wallace Kamloops This Week Environment advocates call for action from Prime… Continue reading

Sundhu new president of Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo New Democrats

Candidate in 2015 will steer the riding association as another candidate is chosen for 2019 federal election campaign

Trudeau to make it harder for future PM to reverse Senate reforms

Of the 105 current senators, 54 are now independents who have banded together in Independent Senators’ Group

Canada’s ambassador meets with second detainee in China

Global Affairs says John McCallum, Canada’s ambassador to China, met with Spavor Sunday

B.C. VIEWS: Andrew Wilkinson on taxes, ICBC and union changes

Opposition leader sees unpredictable year ahead in 2019

5 tips for self-care, mental wellness this holiday season

Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions urging British Columbians to prioritize self care through festive season

Rescued B.C. cat with misshapen legs in need of forever home – with carpet

Mirielle was born with misshapen back legs and after a tough life on the streets, is looking for a forever home.

VIDEO: Craft growers will add to recreational market, cannabis producer says

Two B.C. men say their expertise in running small legal medical grow-ops a benefit to recreational market

World Sikh Organization demands Canada prove Sikh extremism is a threat

Sikh community says this is first time such extremism has been mentioned in federal terror-threat assessment

Risk of catching the flu increasing in B.C. this holiday season: BCCDC

Dr. Danuta Skowronski with the BC Centre for Disease Control says influenza will pick up during the holidays

Boeser has 2 points as Canucks ground Flyers 5-1

WATCH: Vancouver has little trouble with slumping Philly side

Most Read