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'Can You Treat Viruses With Antibiotics?'

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By Elizabeth Hanes, BSN, RNJuly 20, 2020
From the WebMD Archives

Antibiotics are like the superheroes of medicine.

Sick with strep throat? Take an antibiotic and – BAM! It’s cured!

In agony with a UTI? Pop a pill and – WHAM! That infection’s knocked out!

But lying in bed with fever and chills due to flu? Unfortunately, no antibiotic can save you from that.

Antibiotics may be the superheroes of the bacterial infection world, but they’re powerless in the land of the virus – no matter how much we wish that weren’t true.

Illnesses can be caused by many types of germs, including bacteria and viruses. And a viral illness can “feel” the same as sickness caused by bacteria, so it’s understandable that a lot of people think if an antibiotic cured one illness, it probably will cure another that feels similar. But medicines don’t quite work like that.

To treat an illness or infection, doctors first have to identify what type of bug is causing your symptoms. Then they can match it with the correct medication to kill it. For sickness caused by bacteria, like strep throat, the right medication is an antibiotic. For a virus, like the flu, an antibiotic is the wrong medication.

Antibiotics destroy bacteria by breaking down the germ’s physical structure, such as by poking holes in the cell wall. But viruses are not built the same way as bacteria. An antibiotic drug cannot poke holes in the cell wall of a virus. In fact, an antibiotic medication won’t have any effect on a virus at all.

So, basically, taking an antibiotic pill for a virus is like treating your home’s termite infestation by sprinkling weed killer around the foundation. The weed killer does a great job of killing weeds, but it won’t kill any termites.

But if antibiotics don’t work against viruses, why are some people with COVID-19 (a viral infection) being given antibiotics as part of their treatment? It’s because the effects of a severe viral infection like COVID-19 can cause bacterial infections to develop in the body. For instance, a severe case of COVID-19 – which can’t be treated with antibiotics – might, in turn, cause excessive mucus production in the lungs that leads to the development of a bacterial pneumonia. This type of pneumonia can be treated effectively antibiotics.

As bacteria-fighters, antibiotics are superheroes, performing miracle cures every day. But don’t call on them to fight viruses – they’ll be powerless to help.



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