The Bronchitis Affair

Martin Blaser, M.D., of New York University, on our overuse of antibiotics: "Has any health-care professional ever told you that taking antibiotics would increase your susceptibility to infection?"

In Tuesday’s blog we addressed the emerging topic of how antibiotics leave you more vulnerable to infection. The reason is that antibiotics work more like a shotgun than a target rifle: they kill all bacteria in sight. So the “good” bacteria that help us fight infection are killed too, leaving us more vulnerable to the next microbial invader. So the lesson is only use an antibiotic when you absolutely have to and for goodness sake don’t use them for something they don’t work on.

The trouble is we’re not doing that. As the Centers for Disease Control points out antibiotics do not fight infections caused by viruses like colds, most sore throats and bronchitis, and some ear infections. And a study just released tells us we’re getting this wrong more than we thought.

When you go to a doctor’s office or the emergency room and are diagnosed with acute bronchitis, 71% of the time you will be prescribed an antibiotic. The only problem is you should never be given that script because bronchitis is a viral-based illness not bacterial. So aside from the usual harm associated with a wrongly prescribed antibiotic – diarrhea, rashes, and stomach distress – we’re creating a huge pool of people who are more vulnerable to disease.

Oh, and as for the 15 year program the CDC has engaged in trying to educate doctors about the appropriate use of antibiotics, how’s that working out? The bronchitis study was over 14 years ending in 2010. It found that the number of antibiotic prescriptions for bronchitis actually increased over that period.

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