Request For Antibiotics On The Rise

Know the difference between illnesses that respond to antibiotics and those that don’t.

This year’s flu cases have already exceeded Australia’s five-year average and COVID cases have reached 8.9 million since 2020, and a leading telehealth and prescription service has seen a concerning increase in patient requests for antibiotics for the treatment of viruses.

Medical Director at InstantScripts, Dr Andrew Thompson said that it was important to know the difference between bacterial illnesses, which may require antibiotics, and viral illnesses, which do not, as well as the health risks they pose when used when they shouldn’t be.

“A bacterial illness occurs when bacteria multiply at the site of infection, whether that be a cut in the skin, in our gut or in our airways,” Dr Thompson said.

“Examples are strep throat and urinary tract infections.

“Viral infections are caused by viruses, much smaller particles that are not living organisms, but rather invade our own normal healthy cells and use our own machinery to reproduce.

“Examples are the common cold and chickenpox.

“Viruses and bacteria can both be spread in similar ways, such as the exchange of bodily fluids, coughing, sneezing or handling of contaminated objects.”

According to Dr Thompson, it can be difficult to differentiate between the two infections because they present similar symptoms.

“We know that a vast majority of respiratory infections are caused by a virus and will not respond to antibiotics,” he said.

“There are certain clinical features such as persistent high-grade temperatures, swollen lymph nodes or the presence of infected material that may indicate a bacterial infection is more likely.

“However, there is significant overlap and these symptoms don’t provide a definitive diagnosis.

“Those who are concerned, have severe or debilitating symptoms or are feeling shortness of breath should consult with their doctor, who will examine them and order investigations such as blood tests, swabs or even x-rays to determine a diagnosis and the correct course of treatment.”

Antibiotics work in a variety of ways to destroy invading organisms that cause bacterial infections, but viruses remain unaffected.

Dr Thompson said that historically, Australia had seen an over-prescription of antibiotics for the wrong reasons, leading to a false belief that antibiotics are necessary for the treatment of common viral illnesses.

“Patients can often underestimate the risk that taking antibiotics can pose to their health,” he said.

“There are immediate concerns for patient welfare in the form of allergic reactions, with antibiotics being a common cause of anaphylactic reactions in Australia - up to 25 per cent of patients present to hospitals with such allergies.

“Most importantly, our bodies contain trillions of bacteria that serve vital purposes, particularly in our gastrointestinal health. “Antibiotics act indiscriminately on any susceptible bacteria they come across, so they will not only attack a potential infection but can also destroy the body’s supply of good bacteria.

“This can result in a variety of issues, from mild gastrointestinal upset such as diarrhoea and bloating, to severe life-threatening emergencies, including cases where invasive bacteria, known as Clostridium difficile, take over once the good bacteria have been eradicated.”

Repeated exposure to a particular antibiotic allows bacteria to build up a resistance to the medications, in some cases making it very difficult to treat illnesses.

The elderly, frail and unwell are particularly vulnerable to resistant bacteria and the treatment of multi-resistant infections can put an increased burden on our overworked healthcare system.

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