When we’re sick and go see the doctor or even go into the hospital, we want the doctor to “do” something right away to make us well. But a recent study in Pennsylvania reported in the November issue of Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology shows that sometimes what doctors do to fix an infection can actually make us feel worse.
There are two common causes of infection: viruses and bacteria. Common viral infections include the common cold, chicken pox, and AIDS. Infections caused by bacteria include strep throat, tuberculosis, and urinary tract infections. Some illnesses including pneumonia and diarrhea can be caused by either a virus or bacteria.
The biggest difference between these two types of infections is how they are treated. Bacteria can be killed by antibiotics. Viruses are not harmed by antibiotics. So it’s important for doctors to figure out what is causing an infection so they can decide whether antibiotics are the solution or not.
That’s where the Pennsylvania study comes in. Researchers who tracked how patients with infections were treated in two hospitals in Pennsylvania discovered that doctors often give patients antibiotics to fight infection even when they know the infection is caused by a virus. Out of 196 patients who had viral infections, 125 of them were still given antibiotics for no apparent reason.
In years past, most infections were treated using antibiotics because there was no easy way to figure out whether the infection was viral or bacterial. New tests are now available to supply that answer, which means doctors should be able to make better decisions about whether to give antibiotics or not.
This is a serious concern because the recent development of bacteria that are immune to antibiotics can be linked to the overuse of antibiotics. It’s a similar to the old story of the boy who cried wolf. If someone takes antibiotics they don’t really need, the bacteria can develop the ability to ignore the antibiotic so that when a serious infection develops, the antibiotic won’t work against that particular kind of bacteria.