Miracle antibiotics have only been around since the mid-1930s. Prior to that time, all cures were orchestrated by our immune systems. What didn’t kill us, made us stronger. Yes, people died from infections that can be cured nowadays, but for the most part, people were immunologically strong.
Antibiotics are truly miracles, and they have saved countless lives since their inception, however, it has not been without a price. Umpteen thousands of shots of penicillin were given to soldiers in World War II to combat battlefield infections, or the recreational cases of gonorrhea. Penicillin will not touch gonorrhea now; the bacteria having built a strong resistance over time.
My introduction to antibiotics began in my youth. I can still remember the buttocks sting of a penicillin shot. It seemed that no matter what was wrong with us; Dr. Moats gave the same, painful shot.
WebMD’s Ear, Nose, and Throat message board allows me to see a cross-section of how patients are being treated (mistreated), not just in the U.S., but across the world. Time and time again, people are diagnosed with a simple cold – a viral illness – but are given amoxicillin anyway. Antibiotics are clearly not indicated for viruses, yet they are shelled out like Halloween candy. Why? Some clinicians feel that patient demand them. Other doctors admit that they just give an antibiotic prescription to “shut ‘em up”. Yes, it is quicker and easier to hand out a prescription for a (worthless) antibiotic, than to take the time to explain to a person why it isn’t needed. This blatant practice of dispensing unnecessary antibiotics is coming back to bite us in the butts…big time!
People hoard left-over antibiotics (there should NEVER be any left-over). They openly prescribe and give it to their friends and other family members. They keep expired antibiotics in their medicine cabinets. They buy antibiotics while vacationing in countries that do not control their distribution. They smuggle it back in the country, hidden in clever places, so they can self-prescribe. Medical care is really expensive, so why not be your own doctor and pharmacist?
When you give an antibiotic, like amoxicillin – clearly, the most popular – to a person with a viral infection, what do you think happens? They usually get better. The cure is falsely attributed to the amoxicillin and the medical provider gets credit for the miracle cure. It is rare that the patient realizes that they would have gotten better anyway. Viruses are self-limiting, lasting about a week. When a patient seeks care on day three and is given an antibiotic, they will be considerably better on day four, the typical time that viruses get better anyway.
So, what’s the harm? Antibiotics are good. We have antibiotics in our foods, meats, and bath soaps. There are even counter tops and cutting boards that are “anti-bacterial”. Traces of antibiotics are in our water, too. The harm is that unnecessary antibiotics circumvent our immune systems. If your immune system is not “challenged” from time to time, it becomes weaker and less-effective. When this happens, you must have external antibiotics; it may not be an option anymore.
In my medical youth, strep was either treated empirically (by characteristic examination findings) or by a culture. The culture took at least two days to get a result. By the time you were informed that you had strep and were treated, you had it for several days. Recurrent strep throat, common today, was not as common 30 or 40 years ago. Those few days waiting for the results gave the immune system sufficient time to build antibodies – antibodies that would fight the next infection. And, because your blood was rich in antibodies against strep, those next infections were few and far between.
Enter the Rapid Strep Test. First, it took a few hours to find out; now, the “yeah or nay” results take only minutes. A person wakes up with a sore throat, finds out they have strep an hour or so later, and is promptly treated. Good medicine? Perhaps not. In our efforts to make fast-treatment medicine like fast-food restaurants, we have circumvented the remarkable human immune system. It didn’t really have to work at all. A month later, we get strep again…and again over the next year or so. Our tonsils, an important part of our immune response enlarged in response to this invader. Enter the ENT who takes them out.
Should we return to the pre-antibiotic era again? I hope not, but now is the time to find a happy medium. We cannot, and should not dispense antibiotics just because someone wants them, someone is afraid they may get sicker, or just to shut up a demanding patient. This seemingly innocent act of handing out an unnecessary antibiotic prescription is really the root of our problem.
Studies have shown, over and over again, that the vast majority of middle ear infections will resolve spontaneously in a few days, whether you take antibiotics or not. So, why use them at all? Infants often need them, since their immune systems are often not adequate. The “frequent-flyers” – kids that have had dozens of prescriptions for past ear infections – often need them because their immune systems are not strong. Kids in day-care often need them because they are exposed to pathogens that may be stronger and more resistant, from kids that are “frequent-flyers”. The monster may be already out of the closet. Early antibiotics are usually needed in people with weakened immune systems from diabetes, asthma, or cancer. I am talking about everyone else.
In most cases, we need to count to three…or even, four (days) before taking antibiotics. And, we should never take antibiotics as a preventative. We need to take antibiotics ONLY when a susceptible BACTERIAL infection is present. I often read in postings that people were given antibiotics “just in case” – to keep them from getting sicker. Where did these medical yahoos get their training?
All I am asking is to give your immune system a chance. Make it work for you. It’s really okay to be sick for a few days just to jump start your immune response. It’s okay to allow your body to have a fever; don’t try and mask it with acetaminophen or ibuprofen, unless you need it for pain or discomfort. Humans existed on this planet millions of years before the discovery of amoxicillin. The most powerful antibiotics exist within you, if you just give it a chance…a few days, at least. If things are going downhill and you are not getting better, then and only then, consider medical intervention.
Medical care IS expensive. Millions of people do not have insurance. I have always been a proponent of self-care, but self-care does not mean self medicating with old antibiotics or someone else’s antibiotics. Perhaps the best thing that you can do to prevent getting sick is to not interfere with your body’s immune response. Trust those millions of years of evolution. Trust that you can get access to care if an
d when you need it in most cases; there is no rush. Each time that we become ill is really not a failure of our immune response, but an opportunity to get stronger.
The same people that have unsubstantiated fears of vaccines – perhaps the most natural way of preventing serious illnesses – will not bat an eye about taking handfuls of potent antibiotics. Why is that?
When you are ill, stay home. Don’t expose others and don’t be a martyr by going to work sick. Feeling crappy is your body’s way of saying, “Stay down!” Listen to it. The world will not come to an end simply because you miss a deadline due to illness. If you were in a serious car accident, you couldn’t go to work, so stay home when you are ill.
Schools freak out when a kid misses a day. Missed days mean money – usually federal or state funds dependent on days of instruction per child. Schools want those doctor notes in order to be paid. Of course, children are often unnecessarily taken to the doctor just to get those precious notes. If sick kids stay home until they are well and no longer contagious, they will not spread germs to others, resulting in a domino effect of more sick kids and work-missing, sick parents. Parents have totally lost the right to make a decision to keep their sick kids home. To make matters worse, parents have been known to lose their jobs because they stayed home sick, or stayed home to care for ill children.
Congress and the Administration are debating health care reform, but we have a lot of reforming to do at the primary care level…and at home. It’s okay to fix a broken system, but first we have to find where things are broken.
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