Got the Flu? Antibiotics Won’t Help (So Please Don’t Ask for Them)

Jan 28, 2013, 12:09 PM, Posted by

Beth Toner Beth Toner

One look at the latest flu map from the Centers for Disease Control tells you everything you need to know: We are smack-dab in the middle of flu season. Make no mistake: Influenza, at best, can make you miserable—and, at worst, kill you. If you are one of the many Americans suffering from the flu this season, you will probably try anything to get relief from your sore throat, high fever, body aches, and chills. But do us a favor: Please don’t ask your doctor for an antibiotic. There are medications—called antivirals—that may decrease your symptoms and shorten your illness by a day or two. Antibiotics, however, won’t help you if you have the flu. 

Antibiotics don’t fight infections that are caused by viruses, including influenza. Yet every year flu sufferers are prescribed antibiotics. According to a policy brief from Extending the Cure (ETC), a project funded by the RWJF Pioneer team, that researches and examines solutions to address antibiotic resistance, between 500,000 and 1 million antibiotic prescriptions are filled each flu season for patients who have the flu and no bacterial illness.

By using an antibiotic for the flu, you increase the possibility that in the future, you will develop resistance to that antibiotic and will require stronger antibiotics when and if you do develop a bacterial infection. Even worse, you’ll be contributing to the growing public health threat of antibiotic resistance.  In fact, research shows a seasonal spike in prescription sales for antibiotics during flu season, leading to increases in resistant Escherichia coli (E. coli) in hospitals and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus (MRSA). This diminishes the power of antibiotics and impacts how effective they will be in the future for other patients. 

What can we do to slow the progression of antibiotic overuse? In a recent Modern Healthcare op-ed, ETC Director Ramanan Laxminarayan called for health care providers, hospitals, patients, and public health officials to work together to make wiser use of antibiotics, especially during the flu season. We need to break the widespread social norm that makes it acceptable for patients to demand antibiotics and for physicians to prescribe them when they aren’t needed. As Ramanan explains, the more we use antibiotics when we don’t need them, the more we contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant microbes—and to the frightening prospect of a world where most infections don’t respond to antibiotics.

As always, prevention is the best cure. If you haven’t gotten the flu vaccine yet, it’s not too late. While the vaccine isn’t a 100 percent guarantee you won’t get the flu, it’s very effective. So is washing your hands frequently, keeping your distance from folks who have the virus (whenever possible), and keeping your hands away from your face. If it’s too late, and you’ve already gotten the flu, be sure to:

  • Stay home!
  • Talk to your health care provider.
  • Ask what medications are effective in treating the symptoms. (Remember, it’s not antibiotics!)

Let us know what you think on Twitter, Facebook, or by commenting below: What can we do a patients or health care providers to conserve our use of antibiotics?

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.