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In a recent column, I said that antibiotics are usually not necessary to treat most upper-respiratory infections. I have been asked to discuss antibiotics in more detail.

An antibiotic is a type of medication that kills bacteria, or at least inhibits growth, thus curing an infectious disease.

The first antibiotic to be discovered was penicillin, which was produced from a common mold and was discovered accidentally by Alexander Fleming in 1928. It wasn’t used to treat disease until 1941, but it became extremely helpful when it was found to cure the myriad infections of the soldiers in World War II.

Today, there are more than 100 different antibiotics on the market, treating bacterial infections ranging from the minor, such as strep throat, to the life-threatening, such as meningitis.

As of yet, we have very few antibiotics that can treat viral infections. There are none to treat the common cold and only a few that can help treat influenza. However, bacterial infections — the cause of such common diseases as strep throat, bladder infections, skin infections and many ear infections, for example — can be cured by the use of antibiotics.

If an antibiotic is used, your physician will choose the one most likely to be effective against the type of germ causing your infection. Other factors in the choice of an antibiotic include medication cost, dosing schedule and potential side effects.

Antibiotics have been over-prescribed for a number of reasons, including patients’ expectations or insistence on use of antibiotics; physicians prescribing them because they don’t have the time or willingness to explain why they are not necessary; and medical legal reasons.

The consequences of over-prescribing antibiotics are twofold.

First is the possibility of a bad reaction to the antibiotic. This might span from minor conditions — a bothersome rash, diarrhea or a yeast infection — to a life-threatening allergic reaction called anaphylactic shock.

The bigger problem, as I see it, is the emergence of resistant germs. This happens when the overuse of antibiotics allows the development of germs that are no longer killed by most of the common antibiotics.

As opposed to the post-World War II decades, when drug companies were pumping out new antibiotics faster than germs could become resistant, we are now in a situation in which, for various reasons, drug companies are not putting in the resources to develop new antibiotics. This will become a serious crisis when we reach a time when many infections will not be treatable with existing antibiotics.

As I have emphasized previously, when seeing your physician for an illness, it is best not to have expectations of being treated with antibiotics. Rather, let your physician decide whether antibiotics are needed, and expect an explanation from him or her as to the reasoning behind that decision. You should also be given suggestions as to what you can do to make yourself feel better during the course of your illness.

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There are many misperceptions about the appropriate use of antibiotics for the treatment of upper-respiratory infections.

As we come to the end of another year and find ourselves in the midst of the cold and flu season, I want to talk about the diagnosis and treatment of the common upper-respiratory infections. These infections include sinus infections (sinusitis), sore throats (pharyngitis), ear infections (otitis) and coughs (bronchitis).

These are the most common illnesses seen in my practice in urgent care, as well as in most acute-care practices. We physicians are constantly receiving information from current medical literature indicating that almost all of these infections are caused by viruses, which are completely unaffected by the use of antibiotics. These viral infections will usually improve with time. The big question here is how much time.

At what point does the simple viral infection become a secondary bacterial infection that can be cured with an antibiotic? That is the critical issue, and one that I’m sorry to say is difficult to determine.

We physicians have various means to confidently diagnosis such problems as appendicitis, heart attacks, ulcer disease, diabetes and others. But we have no easy, fast, or accurate method of determining at what point in time the upper-respiratory infection changes from a viral infection to a bacterial infection.

I want to say emphatically that antibiotics will not shorten the duration of an upper-respiratory infection.

Why not just give an antibiotic and hope for the best?

Simply put, antibiotics can cause problems from annoying to life-threatening allergic reactions, diarrhea and yeast infections. Just recently, overuse of antibiotics has been linked to obesity by Dr. Martin Blaser, a professor of microbiology at New York University Langone Medical Center. Antibiotics are also very costly and drive up the cost of health care when prescribed needlessly.

The most important issue is that the inappropriate use of antibiotics causes the development of “super germs” that resist treatment by almost all antibiotics. Unfortunately, unlike in past years, very few new antibiotics are being developed. The situation worries me.

What I would ask of patients with symptoms of the abovementioned respiratory illnesses is to give as much time as possible for the illness to run its course. If you have a fever or increasing pain, if you feel so sick that you can’t perform your usual routine or if you develop any other symptom that worries you, an immediate trip to your physician is justified.

Once you decide to see your doctor, you should expect the doctor to listen to your explanation of symptoms, examine you, give you a diagnosis and offer an estimate as to when you should feel better. Then let him or her advise you of the proper treatment to help you feel better.

When it comes to the common upper-respiratory infection, let us do for you what will ultimately help you, in the safest and best way, feel better.

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