Improper use of antibiotics: Don’t take the risk!

Improper use of antibiotics is a problem on many levels. It’s easy to get the wrong prescription for an illness if it is improperly diagnosed or if the healthcare provider is trying to keep a patient happy. By taking an antibiotic that isn’t necessary, we increase the problem of Superbugs and even put our own health at risk.

Risks of improper use of antibiotics

Improper use of antibiotics increases risk unnecessarily. Use antibiotics wisely.
Improper use of antibiotics increases risk unnecessarily. Use antibiotics wisely.

Not only is an antibiotic NOT needed for viral illnesses, but taking them when not needed can increase problems.

Risks of antibiotics involve diarrhea, yeast infections, allergic reactions, and more.

Every time we take an antibiotic, we assume the risks associated with the antibiotic. If we have a significant bacterial infection, the risk is warranted. But if we have an infection that the antibiotic will not kill, it is an unnecessary risk.

Dr. Oglesby has a great series on antibiotics, covering general facts on antibiotics (such as how they work), how resistance spreads, and when antibiotics may be needed.

Superbugs

Most of us have heard of superbugs, but there is a misconception about how they work.

Using antibiotics inappropriately can allow bacteria to learn to evade the antibiotic, which makes it ineffective. This means that new antibiotics need to be used to treat infections, which increases the time of illness, the cost of treatment, and the risk of untreatable illnesses. Some bacteria develop resistance to all known treatments, which can lead to death.

“The Last time amoxicillin didn’t work and we had to use something else. Can we use that one again?”

A lot of parents think that if one antibiotic failed with a previous infection, they need a different one. This is not true.

The bacteria develop resistance to an antibiotic. Bacteria can share their genetic material with other bacteria, leading to the quick spread of resistance.

Even someone who has never used an antibiotic can be infected with a resistant bacteria, which makes it harder to treat their infection.

Unfortunately, without a bacterial culture it is impossible to know what the best antibiotic is for any specific infection. We use the type of infection and the bacterial resistance pattern of the area to make the best choice.

It’s not the person that becomes immune to an antibiotic

Very often parents request a different antibiotic because “amoxicillin never works for my family.”

A person does not become immune to a type of antibiotic.

Start with an antibiotic that has a narrow coverage usually

A first line antibiotic is an antibiotic that covers the type of infection that is present, but isn’t so broad that it includes more bacteria than needed. It can also be called narrow-spectrum.

One infection with a superbug might require a strong antibiotic, but the next bacterial infection in the same person might respond well to a first-line treatment, such as amoxicillin.

It’s always wise to start with the first line antibiotic for the type of infection unless a person’s allergic to that antibiotic. It doesn’t matter if it worked the last time or not.

Broad spectrum antibiotics are needed for some serious infections

Remember that broad-spectrum antibiotics that have great killing power can increase the risk of killing the good bacteria that your body needs.

If you have a serious infection, they might be needed. In this case the benefit outweighs the risk.

Each new infection is a new bacteria.

The type of infection will determine the most likely bacteria. A culture from the infection (if possible) will specify exactly what bacteria is the cause and which antibiotics will work.

First line antibiotics are chosen based on type of infection as well as local resistance patterns. Upper respiratory tract bacterial infections tend to use different antibiotics than urinary tract infections or skin infections because different bacteria cause different types of infections.

Allergic reaction

Most people can tolerate antibiotics, but allergic reactions can be serious. It’s not worth the risk if the antibiotic isn’t needed in the first place.

Many people think they’re allergic to an antibiotic when they’re not.

Talk to your doctor about any drug allergies you suspect your child has and why.

Diarrhea

Many kids will get loose stools when they take antibiotics.

Probiotics can help re-establish a healthy amount of good bacteria in the gut and slow the diarrhea most of the time.

Unfortunately there is a type of bacteria commonly called C. diff that can overpopulate after antibiotics and cause severe diarrhea. C. diff causes thousands of deaths every year in adults and children, most often following antibiotic use.

If diarrhea develops during or after antibiotic use, talk to your doctor’s office during regular office hours for advice. If there are signs of dehydration, severe pain, blood in stools, or other concerns you should have your child seen quickly.

Gut flora

Antibiotics kill not only the bacteria causing an infection, but also the “good” bacteria (gut flora) in our bodies.

Our bodies are a habitat for healthy bacteria and yeast. I know this seems unnatural or unhealthy to many people, but we need these bacteria and yeast in a healthy balance.

Gut flora is made of many types of healthy bacteria. These bacteria help us with many functions, such as digestion and weight regulation. Good bacteria make products that lower inflammation in the intestines. They also make neurotransmitters which affect our mood.

Different “good” bacteria can be affected depending on which antibiotic is used.

Yeast infections

As mentioned above, our bodies are an ecosystem of bacteria and yeast. When bacteria are killed off with an antibiotic, it throws off the balance and allows the yeast to overgrow.

Yeast keeps the digestive system healthy and helps our immune system. It can help our body absorb vitamins and minerals from food. Despite what you read online, yeast are very beneficial to us – as long as they remain in healthy balance.

There are a lot of people selling products to treat overgrowth of yeast, which is said to cause all kinds of problems. These types of overgrowth are not recognized as true overgrowth by most physicians, but there are true yeast infections.

Yeast can cause infections of your skin (ringworm), feet (athlete’s foot), mouth (thrush), and penis or vagina (yeast infection). At risk people can develop blood infections with yeast. These can be life threatening. Serious yeast infections tend to occur in diabetics, immunocompromised people and those who were treated with antibiotics.

If you suspect a yeast infection, talk to your physician.

Risk vs benefit

When antibiotics are needed to fight a bacterial infection, it is worth the risk of taking the antibiotic.

The balance flips if you have a common cold – don’t take the risk for something that isn’t needed or beneficial.

Antibiotics do not and will not help treat a cold. Ever.

Don’t try to use an antibiotic to prevent a cold from developing into something else.

Improper use of an antibiotic simply has too many risks and will not help, so there is no benefit.

Prevention is key!

If you’re not sick, you don’t even think about looking for an easy fix for a viral illness.

Use proper handwashing, vaccinate against vaccine preventable diseases, and stay home when sick!

 

Don’t look for quick fixes for your cold! There’s no quick fix

We all have been sick and wish for a magic cure. Sometimes it seems we find the right fix, but it was just coincidental. I see many people who want antibiotics to fix a viral illness because “it always works” but I want to try to show why this isn’t usually the case. Using antibiotics for most colds and coughs isn’t necessary and can lead to problems.

My urgent care experience

This blog is generally about pediatric health, but sometimes the principles are similar in adult medicine, so I’m sharing a personal story.

I was visiting my parents out of town and came down with fever, chills, and a sore throat. Due to the fatigue and shaking chills, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to drive the 4 hour trip home the following day. I decided to go to a walk in clinic to see if there was a treatment to help get me on my feet again.

Although it’s less common for adults to get Strep throat, I wanted to have my throat swabbed because I had been exposed to just about everything at work.

If it was just a viral illness, fine. I’d tough through it with fluids and a fever reducer for the body-shaking uncomfortable chills.

But a child had gagged and coughed in my face earlier that week when I was doing a throat swab – and he had Strep. If I had Strep (as I hoped), then an antibiotic would treat the cause and I’d be back in shape in no time.

I could technically call out an antibiotic for myself, but I didn’t want to do that. That is poor care and I would never recommend treating anyone with a prescription without a proper evaluation.

I followed my own advice and went to a walk in clinic since I was out of town. If I was at home, I would have gone to my primary care physician because I believe in the medical home.

The provider walked into the exam room looking at the nurse’s notes saying it sounded like I had a sinus infection. (I use the term provider because I don’t recall if he was a physician, NP, or PA.)

What?

He hadn’t even examined me or gotten any history from me other than answers to the cursory questions the nurse asked. Not to mention that my symptoms had just started within the past 24 hours and didn’t include any form of nasal congestion or drainage.

I’m a physician and know that sinusitis must have persistent symptoms for much longer than 24 hours. But I kept that thought to myself for the moment.

He did a quick exam and started writing a script to treat my sudden onset of fever without cough/congestion.

He literally started writing the script as he was telling me, once again, that I had a sinus infection.

Now I couldn’t stay quiet any longer.

antibiotics are not a quick fix for virusesI said I really just wanted a throat swab to see if it was Strep. I didn’t want an antibiotic if it wasn’t Strep throat.

He argued for a bit about the validity of rapid Strep testing.

I argued that I did not meet the criteria for a sinus infection and that the rapid strep tests are indeed fairly reliable (not perfect).

As a pediatrician I won that argument easily. In the end I was swabbed.

The test was negative. I most likely didn’t have Strep throat after all.

He still gave me a prescription for a commonly used antibiotic called a Z-pack, which I threw away.

avoid unnecessary antibiotics
Antibiotics are not a quick fix for viruses and carry risks.

Did I get better?

I felt better the next day, so if I had just taken the z-pack, I would have thought it worked.

Ironically, the Z-pack is not a very good antibiotic against Strep, the one reason I would have taken an antibiotic. Resistance rates are high in my area, so unless a person has other antibiotic allergies (which I do not) I would not choose it for Strep throat.

But my body fought off an unnamed virus all by itself. That’s what our immune system does. Pretty cool, right?

No. Not cool.

Well, yes… it is cool that we can get better with the help of our immune system and no antibiotics. But not cool that a less knowledgeable person would have taken the prescription without question.

Unfortunately, I think many people trust the medical care provider, even when he or she is wrong.  Even smart people don’t know how to diagnose and treat illnesses unless they’re experienced in healthcare, so anyone could be fooled. Especially since we’re vulnerable when we’re sick. Even more so when our kids are sick. We want to do anything to help them.

False security in an unnecessary treatment.

Many parents come into my clinic wanting an antibiotic for their child because the child has the same symptoms as they have and they’ve been diagnosed with a sinus infection, bronchitis, or whatever. They’re on an antibiotic and are getting better, so they presume their child needs the same.

Most of the time they both likely have a viral illness, and the natural progression is to get better without antibiotics, but it’s hard to get buy in to that when a parent’s worried about a child. Even harder when the parent is certain that their antibiotic is fixing their viral illness.

Confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs.

A false belief is reinforced when we think we get better due to an antibiotic. It doesn’t prove that the antibiotic worked, but our minds perceive it as such.

We want to believe something works, and when it appears to work, it affirms our false belief.

The wrong treatment plan.

In my example, not only did I not have a sinus infection, but if I did have a false negative Strep test and actually needed an antibiotic for Strep, the Z-pack wasn’t a good choice.

False negative tests mean that there is a disease, but the test failed to show it. False negative tests are the reason I usually do a back up throat culture if I really think it is Strep throat and not a virus.

If the wrong treatment is given, not only do you fail to treat the real cause, but you also take the risks associated with the treatment for no reason.

Doesn’t the doctor (or NP or PA) know the antibiotic won’t work?

Yes, they know (or should know) how antibiotics work and when they’re indicated. But unfortunately, there are other factors at work when quick fixes are chosen.

Top 3 reasons that lead to patients getting unnecessary prescriptions:

1. Time

One problem is that it’s much easier to give a prescription rather than taking time trying to teach why a prescription isn’t needed.

The faster they see a patient, the more patients they can see and the shorter the waiting time is, which makes people happy.

I see many unhappy parents who follow up with me because their child is still sick and the “last doctor” did nothing. I have previously blogged about the Evolution of Illness so will not go into it in depth here.

2. Experience

Sometimes it’s hard for physicians, NPs, and PAs to not try something to make a sick person better. After all, that’s why we do what we do, right? We want to help. We’ve all heard of patients who get progressively ill because an infection wasn’t treated quickly and we don’t want to “miss” something.

While missing a significant illness can happen, it’s not common. Common is common. Most upper respiratory tract infections are viral. It’s knowing how to recognize worrisome symptoms that comes from experience.

Physicians (MD, DO)

Physicians spend years of not only classroom training, but also clinical training to learn to recognize warning signs of illness. Even a brand new physician has at least 2 clinical years during the total 4 years of medical school. Then they spend at least 3 years of residency seeing patients in a supervised capacity before they can work independently. That’s at least 5 years of 60-80 hour work weeks.

The physicians in my office, including myself – now 18 years in practice – still ask for help if we feel it could be beneficial. Sometimes a second set of eyes or putting our heads together helps to put things into a clearer picture.

Trust that if we say it’s a virus, it’s a virus. We know that bodies can still be significantly sick if it’s Just A Virus, but most of the time you can manage symptoms at home. Listen to what we say are warning signs that indicate your child should be reassessed. Bring your child back if symptoms worsen or continue longer than typical. Symptoms can worsen, but taking an antibiotic does not prevent that progression in most cases.

Be sure to question if you do not understand or agree with an assessment or treatment plan, as I did in my example above. It is essential to have this type of communication for the best care.

Nurse Practitioners (NPs) and Physician Assistants (PAs)

I love the NPs in my office. They do a fantastic job and make patient access easier. They see a lot of sick kids and do a great job treating when needed and giving “just” advice when that is what is needed. (That’s usually harder, trust me.)

They are always able ask questions if they don’t know what to do or for a physician to see a patient if a parent wants a second opinion.

I do not want this to become an argument if NPs and PAs are good. They are needed in our healthcare system to help patients get seen in a timely fashion. I welcome and appreciate them as part of the healthcare team.

But I do want to acknowledge that the training and background can vary widely, and I think it’s important to know the experience of your provider. It is not as regulated to become an NP or PA as it is to become a physician.

Many NPs have years of work experience before returning to school to get their advanced degree. But newer online programs do not require much clinical experience. At all.

If they then begin working independently without much supervision, they learn as they go and may or may not learn well. I’m not saying they’re not smart, but I also know how lost I felt those first months as a new physician after many supervised hours, and I know they have a small fraction of those supervised hours. I can’t imagine doing that as a new grad!

This is why I think that all new practitioners should work with others who have more experience, so they can learn from the experience of others. I worry when inexperienced people work alone in clinics, with no one to bounce questions off of.

Learn more about the training of healthcare providers in What kind of doctor is your doctor?

Patient experience and the 6th sense as a parent

Experience as a parent (and patient) matters too.

We can’t see what your child experienced last night if we’re seeing them in the morning and symptoms changed. Many symptoms are worse overnight, which makes it difficult to assess during the day. Of course if symptoms are urgent at night, go to a 24 hour facility that can adequately evaluate the situation.

If you are able to wait until regular business hours, you must describe it so we can understand it.

If you feel uncomfortable with the treatment plan, talk to the provider. List your concerns and let them address them. That’s not the same thing as demanding a prescription or further testing. It means asking for more information about why they feel the current plan is the correct one.

3. Surveys

Many hospitals, clinics and insurance companies are surveying patients to see if “good care” was provided. These surveys are used to place providers on insurance contracts and decide payment and salaries.

People are happier and think care is better if something was done. A lab, x-ray, or prescription (whether needed or not) is “something” people can identify.

People do not feel that information about viral illnesses and what treatments can be done at home is as worthwhile as a tangible treatment, even if it’s the correct treatment. They see the prescription as making the cost and time taken for the office visit “worth it” even if it is bad care. Leaving empty handed (but with proper treatment) doesn’t satisfy.

And the surveys reflect that.

Sadly, the pressure felt by physicians and other medical providers to perform well on surveys has been shown to have many negative side effects. Healthcare costs rise from unnecessary tests and treatments. Side effects of unnecessary treatments occur. Hospitalization rates and death are even higher with high patient satisfaction scores.

Don’t look for a quick fix. Look for the right fix.

Antibiotics certainly have their place. They are very beneficial when used properly. For a fun read about being responsible with antibiotics, visit RESPECT ANTIBIOTICS: USE THEM JUDICIOUSLY TO ENSURE WE CAN STILL WAGE THE WAR AGAINST BACTERIA from Dr. Michelle Ramírez.

If we use antibiotics inappropriately, they cause more problems.



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Evolution of Illness

When kids are sick, parents understandably want them to feel better quickly. They want a sound night’s sleep. They want to be able to return to work/school. They want to see a happy, healthy child again. They come to our office hoping for answers and a cure.

Sometimes there is no quick fix, just treating symptoms and time.

sickness, cough, cold, getting worse

It’s been about 15 years, but I remember the frustrations of having a sick baby when my daughter had bronchiolitis. Some of the details are muddy, but I remember the feelings of inadequacy because I couldn’t help her feel any better any faster. I knew the illness tends to get worse before it gets better and there is little we can do to alter its course, but knowing this it didn’t make me feel any better as the mom who was helpless.

I lost sleep for several nights as I watched her pant (not breathe, but pant). I resorted to giving asthma-type breathing treatments because my son had wheezing so we had everything we needed to give a treatment at home with a nebulizer. We did these treatments several times despite the fact that they didn’t seem to help her much. (Guidelines now say to not use bronchodilators for most infants with bronchiolitis but even then we knew it didn’t help much.) It was probably the humidified air from the nebulizer that helped more than anything. But the vaporizer in her room and the saline to suction her nose wasn’t helping, so I wanted to at least try the asthma medicine.

She kept wheezing.

We brought her in to the office three days in a row to have someone else check her. I can’t check oxygen levels at home and needed someone to objectively examiner her.  So three days in a row we went in for repeat exams.

She was able to maintain her oxygen level and stay hydrated despite breathing 60-70 times per minute for days. I still don’t know how. I remember wishing her oxygen level would drop enough that we could hospitalize her ~ not critically ~ just enough. Then she’d be on monitors and maybe I could sleep a bit knowing someone else was watching her. Thankfully she never got that sick and eventually we were all sleeping again, but it took a long time for that.

So I understand the frustration when we tell parents things to do at home and ask that they come back in  __ days or if ___, ____, ___ symptoms worsen. It really isn’t that we are holding out on a treatment that will fix the illness, it’s just that we don’t have a quick fix for many illnesses. We need to be able to examine at different points in the evolution of the illness to get a full picture of what is going on.

The exam can tell us a lot, but it doesn’t predict the future. One minute ears can look normal, the next they develop signs of an infection. I cannot say how many times I’ve heard a parent complain that someone else “missed” something on exam that I now see. Yes, sometimes things can be missed, but I suspect that most of the times the exam has simply changed.

I learned this phenomenon as a resident on the inpatient unit. I had a patient who had been admitted for an abdominal issue. I did a physical on the child in the morning before rounds, including looking at ears, which were normal. Late that afternoon the nurse paged me because he developed a fever. He had a new symptom, so another exam was indicated. This time the ears were red and full of pus. Within hours this child had developed a double ear infection. I examined the ears both times and they were definitely different.

I understand the frustration (and expense) to take kids back in to be seen if symptoms worsen, change, or simply just don’t resolve at home. If symptoms change, we need to re-evaluate, which includes an exam. Medical providers cannot look into the future to see what will develop. It is not appropriate (or effective) to put kids on an antibiotic or iv fluids to prevent the illness from taking its natural progression. Sometimes we need time to see how the illness progresses to see what other treatments might be needed.

When you hear that your child has a viral illness, do not take that to mean it’s “just a virus” and there’s nothing to be done. There are many supportive measures that can be done and things to monitor to be sure your child isn’t getting sicker. Dr. Jamie Friedman discusses the topic of Just a Virus and Dr. Chad Hayes also covers the difference between “just a virus” and the potential risks of a viral illness in “Just a Virus:” What Your Doctor Meant to Say.

When parents call back and want something else done, they are often upset that we want to see the child again. I hear many types of complaints.

  • Money is probably the biggest issue. It is not because we want your co pay. The “we” I use here is not just my office and I am not speaking of any particular situation. With online doctor rating sites, social media sites, and knowing doctors around the country, I write with many examples in mind. I’ve seen online complaints that doctors are just money hungry, trying to get someone to come back in just so we can charge more money. It is true that we charge for every visit. We are not able to waive the copay because we did “something wrong” or “missed a diagnosis” the first time. Each is a separate visit with updated information and a separate exam. Insurance contracts dictate that a separate copay is charged. We must adhere to legal contracts or it would be considered insurance fraud.
  • Increasing our numbers for “production” is sometimes brought up. It is not because we want to fill our waiting room with more children to increase the waiting time for everyone else. We don’t want to waste your time or ours. But we need to see a child to know what is happening at that moment to be able to give any valuable advice and treatment.
  • We want to see your child again because we need to see your child to know what to do. Maybe now the child’s symptoms have changed. Maybe not, but without the history and exam we do not know. The exam might now show wheezing, low oxygen levels, a new ear infection or sounds of pneumonia. Sometimes the exam still is overall normal, but the fever’s been going on long enough without any identifiable cause, which requires lab and/or x-ray evaluation.

Please remember that if you get a different answer at a different visit, it doesn’t mean that the first assessment was wrong. Usually it is due to a progression of the illness, and things change.

Human bodies are not static.