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by James Thomas, Thursday, 16 November 2017 | Categories: General Health

Antibiotics: Mixed Messages for Patients

Scientific discoveries are happening all the time, and sometimes a new piece of research will come along to dispel everything we thought we knew.

The most recent debate to crop up regards antibiotic resistance. All approved guidance currently relating to antibiotic use tells us that finishing a course of antibiotics is vital, even if we begin to feel better within a couple of days. Now, experts have begun to argue something very different.

A team of UK researchers published a short opinion piece in the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) in July, claiming that there is not enough evidence to suggest that cutting short a course of antibiotics contributes to antibiotic resistance.

One of the researchers, Professor Martin Llewelyn, suggested that long courses were "outdated" and that there is now plenty of evidence that short courses of three to five days work just as well. In his opinion, antibiotics should be prescribed on a case by case basis, tailored towards each patient and their specific infection, and not simply administered in the same way every single time.

While these researchers are not putting forward the idea that patients be allowed to judge themselves when they stop a course, there is concern amongst the medical community that this sort of guidance could end up causing confusion.

Not enough research has been done into the "stop when you feel better" model of antibiotic use, and for that reason Public Health England has recommended that patients continue to follow the advice of their prescribing doctor.

Correct Antibiotic Use

As well as taking the full course of antibiotics that you have been prescribed (whether or not you begin to feel better before the end of the course), there are a few things you can bear in mind if you wish to avoid contributing to antibiotic resistance.

The first thing to know is that antibiotics are only an appropriate treatment in the case of a bacterial infection. They have no effect upon viral infections. The common cold and flu are two types of viral infection, which cannot be treated with antibiotics. 

If you become unwell with a cold, you may be tempted to visit your doctor and ask for antibiotics, but it is always best to wait the infection out, resting at home and taking over-the-counter cold treatments. You should typically only visit your GP if your cold has not cleared after three weeks, or if the symptoms are getting noticeably worse.

The flu tends to be more serious, and you should visit your doctor if you fall into a certain at-risk group such as being over 65 or pregnant. Bear in mind, however, that antibiotics are not an appropriate treatment for the flu, and that the best way to avoid it if you are in an at-risk group is to get the annual flu jab.

Avoiding Infection

If you want to avoid taking antibiotics, one of the best things you can do is to protect yourself against bacterial infections. You can prevent germs from spreading by following the kinds of hygiene tips set out by the NHS here.

Another way to avoid infection is to always practise safe sex. Many STIs are bacterial, which means they should be treated with antibiotics. The problem is that STIs such as gonorrhoea have begun to develop antibiotic-resistant strains, which can be very difficult to treat.

To avoid STIs, you should always:

  • Use condoms during penetrative sex when you aren’t sure your partner is free from infection
  • Use dental dams and condoms during oral sex
  • Avoid sharing sex toys unless they have been cleaned or covered in a new condom

You can read more about the risks associated with specific sexual activities here.

Remember that it’s important to get tested regularly if you’re engaging in any risky sexual behaviours. Getting diagnosed early makes treatment easier and reduces the risk of complications; it will also stop you from passing the infection on to others.





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