February 5, 2018

Antibiotics and when you need them

Dr H. John Fardy, General Practitioner, South Coast of NSW and Lung Foundation GP Advisory Group Member

Antibiotics are used to treat infections caused by bacteria, such as respiratory tract infections including pneumonia or whooping cough.i They work by blocking vital processes in bacteria, killing or stopping them from multiplying, which helps the body’s natural immune system to fight the bacterial infection.i

Research published in the Medical Journal of Australia found Australian general practitioners are prescribing antibiotics for acute respiratory infections at rates that are 4 to 9 times higher than recommended by national guidelines.

Most respiratory tract infections, such as the common cold and flu, are caused by viruses so if you are generally healthy, your body can fight the virus itself and recover without any treatmentii. That means, in this scenario, taking antibiotics won’t help because antibiotics don’t kill virusesii. However, if you have a lung condition such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) or bronchiectasis, you may be at a higher risk of complications from a cold, flu or other respiratory tract infection, and antibiotics may be an appropriate treatment for youii.

Research has shown that if people with lung diseases such as COPD are treated with antibiotics at the first sign of a respiratory infection, they are much less likely to be admitted to hospitalii. These early signs include any changes in the following compared to usual:

  • How breathless you become when moving about
  • How much sputum or phlegm you are coughing up
  • A change in colour of sputum or phlegm.

The good news is there are some simple yet effective ways to avoid catching or spreading infections, including:

  • Staying at home if you are unwell
  • Using a tissue when coughing or sneezing, then throwing it away
  • Washing your hands with soap and running water, particularly after coughing or blowing your nose, and before preparing or eating food
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth
  • Avoid sharing cups, glasses and cutlery
  • Keeping household surfaces clean.

i. NPS Medicinewise, Antibiotics Explained, https://www.nps.org.au/medical-info/consumer-info/antibiotics-explained , Accessed December 2017.
ii. NPS Medicinewise, COPD and antibiotics, 2013, https://www.nps.org.au/medical-info/clinical-topics/news/copd-and-antibiotics, Accessed December 2017.