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One of the wonders of the modern medical world, antibiotics transformed the treatment of infections when they started to become widely used in the late 1940s.
Before this, bacterial infections such as pneumonia or those contracted after surgery were killing millions more people across the world each year._
Antibiotics are used to treat or prevent some types of bacterial infection, and they’re a wonderful thing. However, they don’t work for everything – and the problem is we’ve become too dependent on them as a magical cure-all.
A UK study funded by Public Health England in 2018 found that up to a fifth of prescriptions for antibiotics may have been given needlessly. Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer for England, pointed out, ‘Antibiotics are unique among drugs since the more they are used, the less effective they become because bacterial resistance is likely to develop.’
Antibiotic resistance has led to the emergence of so-called ‘superbugs’. Serious illnesses including tuberculosis, typhoid fever and pneumonia are just some of those that antibiotics are now failing to cure.
"We’re getting to a crunch point in antibiotic resistance where diseases that we thought were easy to cure with antibiotics aren’t going to be curable anymore," explains independent virologist Dr Robert Lambkin-Williams.
"The bottom line is, antibiotics should be the very last choice for any treatment of cold or flu – they should only be prescribed if there are complications because you’ve got a bacterial infection. You should never ask for them. If the doctor thinks it’s necessary, they will prescribe antibiotics – but they should be the very last choice for any treatment. If the doctor doesn’t offer antibiotics, don’t ask for them."
Superbugs – The over-prescribing of antibiotics for common viruses such as sore throats (which antibiotics are in fact not effective for 95% of) has led to the emergence of ‘superbugs’ – strains of bacteria that are resistant to many types of antibiotics.
Antibiotic resistance (also known as antimicrobial resistance) occurs when antibiotics have stopped working and is very serious. If, for example, you were having even a minor procedure at hospital or at your doctor’s surgery, you would usually be given a course of antibiotics to prevent infection. The superbugs are resistant to these drugs - which can cause dangerous and even life-threatening infections.
Most viruses get better on their own without using antibiotics, as do some mild bacterial infections. If in doubt, call NHS 111 for advice.
Always finish your prescription – if you are prescribed antibiotics, it’s vitally important that you take them as prescribed, and always finish the full course, even if you feel better.
Runny noses and colds, sore throats and flu – these are just some of the viruses which do not, normally, need treating with antibiotics as they’ll get better without prescription drugs. In fact, using antibiotics when they’re not needed can have unpleasant side-effects (such as an upset tummy).
Treat yourself at home – "If you have a temperature, drink plenty of water and replace lost fluids with electrolytes (typically a product such as Dioralyte)," says Dr Lambkin-Williams. "Paracetamol is very good and you can take it at the same time as Ibuprofen as long as you’re careful to stick within the limits detailed on the pack."
If you have a sore throat, ask your pharmacist for lozenges, which will numb the pain and reduce inflammation. Home remedies such as freshly squeezed lemon juice and a teaspoon of honey in hot water with lemon juice have been shown to be effective and can help soothe an irritating cough.
Dr Rob Lambkin-Williams is an independent virologist at virologyconsult.com
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