When To Take Antibiotics (And When You Should Steer Clear)

Antibiotic resistance is on the rise – "It’s really worrying. There should be alarm bells ringing for all of us," one GP told us.

Antibiotic resistance might seem like an issue that will only affect future generations, but it’s a very real and growing concern in the UK.

Latest data from Public Health England (PHE) shows there were an estimated 61,000 antibiotic resistant infections in 2018 – a 9% rise from the previous year. That’s equivalent to as many as 165 new antibiotic resistant infections every day in England.

It’s estimated that at least 5,000 deaths are caused every year in England because antibiotics no longer work for some infections – and this figure is only set to rise. According to PHE, experts predict that in 30 years time, antibiotic resistance will kill more people than cancer and diabetes combined.

Dr Kenny Livingstone, an NHS GP and founder of on-demand home-visiting service ZoomDoc, tells HuffPost UK: “The antibiotics that worked several years ago no longer work that effectively. This is especially the case with STIs. There are some strains of gonorrhoea in the north of England where there are no antibiotics that can treat it.

“The infectious disease specialists are scratching their heads and wondering what to do. It’s really worrying. There should be alarm bells ringing for all of us.”

Unfortunately, people are continually taking antibiotics for illnesses that they don’t need them for and are therefore increasing their resistance to the drug.

As such, education surrounding antibiotic use is key. To help the nation wise up, we spoke to GPs about what we should and shouldn’t be taking them for.

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When you should NOT be taking antibiotics

“Antibiotics only treat bacterial infections, and, despite popular belief, should not be used for viral infections such as colds and ear infections,” Dr Clare Morrison, GP at MedXpress, tells HuffPost UK.

“This is because colds and many other infections of the upper respiratory tract as well as some ear infections are caused by viruses, not bacteria.”

If you have any of the following ailments, you should not be taking antibiotics:

  • Cold
  • Flu
  • Cough
  • Fever / high temperature
  • Bronchitis
  • Some ear infections
  • Sore throat

Dr Morrison adds: “If you are suffering from a viral infection and taking antibiotics, the ‘good’ bacteria in your body (bacteria that are beneficial and not causing disease) would be affected. This leads to resistance or creates an opportunity for harmful bacteria to replace the harmless ones.”

When you should be taking antibiotics

Antibiotics are essential to treat serious bacterial infections such as pneumonia, meningitis and sepsis. They also help to ward off infections during chemotherapy, caesarean sections and other surgeries.

You can also take them to help tackle:

  • Urinary tract infections
  • Strep throat
  • Bacterial sinusitis
  • Bacterial ear infection
  • Bacterial chest infections
  • Cellulitis and infections of the skin

What to do next

If you’ve got some antibiotics that you haven’t finished stashed in your cupboard at home, the message is simple: get rid of them. To do so safely, Dr Livingstone recommends taking them to your local pharmacy where they can be disposed of safely.

“Unfortunately a lot of medications end up in bins and then they end up in the soil and rivers and water system,” he explains. “And it’s not just antibiotics. With the pill, for example, you can now detect oestrogen and hormones within the water supply.

“It’s better that all medications including antibiotics are given back to the pharmacy to dispose of safely.”