Why you shouldn't use antibiotics to treat the flu.
by Vera Martins, PhD, Naturopath
We have come a long way since the first natural antibiotic, penicillin, was discovered by Fleming in 1928 and antibiotics were introduced into the market. Antibiotics are one of the most important discoveries in the history of medicine saving many lives and having contributed to the control of infectious diseases. However, the other side of the coin is that antibiotics became so popular that they started to be used indiscriminately which resulted in increased antibiotic resistance. This is one of the biggest threats to global health being responsible for many deaths, according to the World Health Organization. So, when are antibiotics needed and how can we avoid their overuse?
Why antibiotics do not target the flu
This leads us to our hot topic, which is whether antibiotics should be used to treat the flu. And the answer is simply no! The flu (as well as the common cold) is caused by a viral infection and antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses. Therefore, if you take antibiotics to tackle the flu, you won’t be addressing the problem and may be causing more harm than good.
Note that your doctor may still prescribe antibiotics if you have the flu, in case a bacterial infection is also suspected. If this happens, it is a good idea to talk to your doctor and make sure you are getting a correct diagnosis where antibiotics are definitely needed.
Why you should take antibiotics only when necessary
1. Antibiotic overuse increases antibiotic resistance:
Antibiotic resistance is when bacteria learn mechanisms that allow them to survive the action of antibiotics. The more bacteria are exposed to antibiotics, the more likely they will learn those mechanisms and resist antibiotics. This increases the number of resistant bacteria and the chances of you being infected by bacteria that may be resistant. Thus, if in the future you really need antibiotics for an infection, they may be ineffective. Infections such as pneumonia and tuberculosis are becoming more and more difficult to treat as the antibiotics commonly used for them are now less effective.
This is why it’s so critical to know when antibiotics are needed, with doctors playing an important role in educating and better informing patients. Studies show that a higher prevalence of antibiotic resistance is correlated with a lack of knowledge on antibiotics and their associated risks.
2. Antibiotics can destroy your gut beneficial bacteria
Your gut is one of your most precious assets as the trillions of beneficial bacteria (also known as the gut microbiota) that live there affect almost every aspect of your health from mood, immunity, cardiovascular health, weight, skin, hormone balance… you name it. However, when you use antibiotics, you are not only killing the bacteria responsible for the infection, i.e. pathogenic bacteria, but also the good ones.
Studies show that antibiotics influence the number and diversity of your microbiota, significantly affecting the fine balance of these bacteria communities. Although some of these communities recover after treatment, several don’t even after several months, demonstrating the potential long-term side effects of antibiotics.
Since there is such a close link between the gut microbiota and your health, affecting those good guys can have a detrimental effect on your body, including mood and neurodegenerative disorders (we have all heard about the gut-brain axis), autoimmune conditions, as well as inflammatory and allergic diseases. A good example is children who are exposed to antibiotics in their first year of life are more likely to suffer from asthma. Further research shows that bacteria in the gut can directly stimulate the production and release of serotonin (did you know that 90% of serotonin in humans is made in the gut?), a “happy” hormone that regulates mood, sleep and appetite.
The final message is that antibiotics should be taken only when really needed (and definitely not to treat the flu!), after talking to your doctor and asking the right questions. Let’s help preserving antibiotics as an important resource that, when used in the right context, can help saving millions of lives.
Antibiotic Resistance. The World Health Organization. Last updated February 2018.
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