Did you know that this week has been deemed "Get Smart About Antibiotics Week?" As a health care provider I am supposed to help educate the public about the proper use of antibiotics. You might wonder why it's important to educate people other than health care providers about when to use an antibiotic. After all, isn't it up to me (and other prescribers) to decide when to write a prescription? As you will see, it's not always that easy. I need YOUR help to prescribe antibiotics appropriately!
First of all you need the basic information. Germs cause infectious illnesses like colds, flu, strep throat, pneumonia, sinusitis, conjunctivitis (pinkeye), bronchitis, croup, etc. Many of these germs are viruses, some are bacteria. Viruses cause most of the coughs and colds we see all winter. They are contagious, can cause fevers, coughs, runny noses, green and yellow mucous, sore throats, body aches, red eyes, and other symptoms. They are not treatable (except for a very few, specific, viruses--and these don't cause cold symptoms) with antibiotics. If you take an antibiotic and you have a virus it will not help you get better. It probably won't even help prevent you from getting a bacterial complication later. In fact, an unnecessary antibiotic is more likely to cause problems for you later by making the bacterial organisms already living in you more able to resist the effects of an antibiotic.
Wow, that sounds really good, even easy. Don't take an antibiotic if you have a virus. Don't prescribe an antibiotic if your patient has a virus. Simple. Done. No worries.
It is up to me to decide, and at the same time, sometimes it isn't. You might be surprised to learn that there are some grey areas when it comes to prescribing antibiotics. Some illnesses are clearly bacterial. Others are clearly viral. And then there are some which could be either, or are probably from a virus, but could be from a bacteria. And, because of these uncertain types of illnesses, there are some situations in which it can be just easier to write a prescription than to explain why one might not be needed, or why the parent will have to bring the child back in a few days if things get worse. Don't be too shocked. Did you really think we (doctors) are beyond influence?
So what should I do in the following situation? My patient has missed several days of school. Dad had to take time off work to bring her to the office. They have a $30 copay for an office visit. She has been sick for at least a week with a cough and low-grade fever. I diagnose bronchitis, because I can hear the phlegm and mucous in her lungs. Yet I don't think it is pneumonia because most of this clears with her cough. I know that about 85% of the time, bronchitis is likely to be caused by a virus (this is true). There is nothing I can do to determine if I am dealing with a virus or bacteria. It could develop into pneumonia, but usually doesn't. Still, there is no way to tell if it will, or not. This is a grey area!
I can hear my professors in medical school saying "NO ANTIBIOTIC is needed in this situation. Have the patient return in a few days and recheck her. Educate the family about the proper use of antibiotics." Then I look at my patient and her family and explain my dilemma. They might say "What do you recommend, Doc?" Or "What would you do if it were your daughter?" Or "We'll take the antibiotic, because we can't afford to miss more work or school." Or "Can we just have the prescription? We can't afford another copay." Or "Last time this happened you didn't let us have the antibiotic and we ended up in the ER because she developed pneumonia." And then, the unspoken reproach, not said but seen in the family's facial expression, "We've been waiting for you for an hour and you're going to send us home with nothing?"
Another common scenario is that of a toddler who has had a runny nose and cough, and now a low-grade fever plus difficulty sleeping. Examination reveals some fluid behind both ear drums. This is called serous otitis media, and is not usually caused by a bacteria. It is just fluid in the middle ear, building up because of all the congestion. It probably has an 80% chance of clearing on its own, without ever needing antibiotics. However, let's say in this case the little one has already had six full blown ear infections in the last eight months. We could just be days away from another one. Ideally I should not prescribe an antibiotic, but should have the patient return for rechecks (as a toddler he won't be able to let us know in a reliable way if he is feeling worse) and give the antibiotic if I start seeing pus in the middle ear. Then I am obligating the family to take more time off of work, pay additional copays, and possibly have difficulty scheduling the follow-up appointment(s).
I'm here to tell you that sometimes, as the one prescribing the antibiotic, faced with the above scenarios, it's easier just to write the prescription.
I try to do as much education as I can--about the strong possibility that what I am looking at is a virus, my uncertainty that an antibiotic would be helpful, the possible need for a follow-up appointment. If I don't give an antibiotic prescription I am often asked "Can I just call back for a script if things get worse, or will they make me come in?" Sometimes I can agree to just call something in if things get worse--but in the case of a small child or infant I can't safely do that. Occasionally I will give a prescription and extract a promise from the family not to fill it for 48 hours, then only if nothing has improved. I have started to write an expiration date on those prescriptions as I have noticed they sometimes get filled a month later, for a totally different illness! I don't think that's a good idea at all--at that point how do I know an antibiotic is needed, let alone if it's the right one?
An antibiotic is not a back up plan or a safety net, "just in case." Antibiotics don't "ward off" complications of viruses. They have no magic. An antibiotic will work only in a very specific situation: when the infection is caused by a bacteria and the antibiotic is the correct one for that particular bacteria.
As a parent you can help by not asking for, expecting, or even wanting an antibiotic when your child has a virus. That could mean waiting a little longer before making an appointment to check out minor symptoms like a runny nose or slight cough. It could mean a statement when you come in for an appointment such as "I know it could just be a virus, but we wanted to make sure we weren't missing anything." It could mean educating yourself a bit about common cough and cold viruses, understanding that symptoms from these viruses easily last two weeks (and sometimes three!), mucous color doesn't mean much in terms of diagnosing a virus versus a bacterial infection, and being willing to simply comfort your child as the cold symptoms run their course.
Hey, look--I know it's frustrating to have a sick child and not have anything you can do to make it get better faster. I have three children of my own, remember? I know the grey areas make it even harder to know what to do. I can offer you my pledge--to treat your children the way I would want my own children to be treated, to communicate to you what I am thinking, and why, and to try my hardest to do what is best for your child. I need your pledge that you will try to want what is the best thing for your child, to understand and listen to what I am saying, and not just to extract an antibiotic prescription from the appointment. I want you to trust me, work with me, communicate with me. I will work with you!
The CDC has a website about antibiotics. I can't get the linking option to work on my blog--but you can type this in yourself.
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