Cold & Flu Season Means… Too Many Antibiotics or Too Few Antivirals? — September 2014


Cold and Flu SeasonGet the tissues ready—cold and flu season is just around the corner. For many years, public health officials have warned about the risks of overusing antibiotics. While they can be lifesavers for fighting bacterial infections, antibiotics don’t treat viral infections like colds, flu and sore throats.

The biggest concern about overuse of antibiotics is that they won’t work when they are needed. Overuse fuels the growth of new types of bacteria that may not respond to treatments currently available. Antibiotic-resistant infections, like MRSA (Staphylococcus aureus), are considered one of the world’s most critical public health threats. Infections that resist current antibiotics can mean longer lasting illnesses, more doctor visits, hospital stays, and the need for more expensive medications with serious side effects.

Use of unnecessary antibiotics poses another concern. Antibiotics kill “healthy” intestinal bacteria while working away at the unhealthy bacteria. Dr. Martin Blaser, author of Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics Is Fueling Our Modern Plagues, believes that the overuse of antibiotics is linked to the rise in food allergies, celiac disease and inflammatory bowel disease.

Other Options?

Coming down with a cold or the flu can be inconvenient and uncomfortable, but contracting a viral infection can be especially risky for people with suppressed immune systems, the elderly and children under 2 years. There is another class of drugs called antivirals that can help reduce the occurrence and duration of cold and flu symptoms like fever, chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, and body aches.

By reporting such symptoms to your provider early, patients can increase the likelihood that antivirals will be prescribed and help with reducing symptoms. Antiviral drugs, like Tamiflu and Relenza, are most effective when started within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms.

Too Few Antiviral Prescriptions?

A study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases in July showed that antivirals tended to be prescribed less often than antibiotics. For example, the study reported that 30 percent of patients with lab-confirmed flu were prescribed an antibiotic, and only 16 percent were prescribed an antiviral medication.

It’s not always easy to know when an antibiotic is needed. The decision to prescribe one depends on several factors like symptoms, health status and age. Providers often describe that they feel pressure from their patients to prescribe antibiotics for conditions the medications can’t treat. It is understandable that if you’ve paid your co-pay and are in front of your provider, you don’t want to leave without an antibiotic prescription lest you have to return. But that is often the exact scenario that leads to overuse.

Doing Your Part

The following may help you better understand when an antibiotic is warranted. Bacterial infections include bladder infections, many wound and skin infections, severe sinus infections lasting longer than 2 weeks, some ear infections, and strep throat. Viral infections include bronchitis, colds, flu (influenza), most coughs, most ear infections, most sore throats, and stomach flu.

Whatever the factors involved in antibiotic overuse, you can do your part to personally avoid unnecessary use of antibiotics.

  • Practice prevention to stay healthy. Eat well, drink plenty of water, get 7-8 hours of sleep nightly, wash your hands regularly (especially after exposure to illness).
  • When you do get sick, don’t immediately “demand” a prescription for antibiotics. Realize that cold and flu symptoms can last longer than a week. Try asking if your provider would phone in a prescription later if you don’t get better. This allows for the viral infection to run its course naturally but also for the treatment of a bacterial infection without another office visit.
  • Try treating your symptoms by taking steamy showers, drinking hot liquids, gargling with warm salt water, taking over-the-counter pain-relievers  or decongestants, and sleeping with your head elevated.
  • Call KnovaSolutions for more information and support. You want to seek treatment when necessary, but it’s always a good idea to avoid treatment you don’t need!

IMPORTANT: Taking Antibiotics Correctly

If you are prescribed antibiotics for an infection, it is important to take them as prescribed. If you only take them for a few days because you feel better —instead of the full course — the medication will kill some, but not all, of the bacteria. The surviving bacteria can become more resistant and spread to others.

Just because you’ve had a cough for 3 weeks, doesn’t mean you have a bacterial infection. Let Us Know How We Can Help…

Call your KnovaSolutions nurse or pharmacist–800/355-0885 Monday-Friday, 8 am-5 pm MDT.


The information contained in this newsletter is for general, educational purposes. It should not be considered a replacement for consultation with your healthcare provider. If you have concerns about your health, please contact your healthcare provider.

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