One is a research article showing that there is no difference in the rate of symptom improvement unless the culture is positive for either Strep pneumonia or Hemophilus influenza, and only about 50% of the cases have one or the other of these.
It also reveals that the color of the nasal discharge is no help in telling us whether there will be any response to antibiotics.
The accompanying editorial goes further in saying that even when there is improvement, this improvement is not striking: it might be a slight decrease in the duration or the cough frequency, and in return, you get all the drawbacks of an antibiotic course. Read further for tips on avoiding antibiotics in several different situations.
Tips for Avoiding Antibiotics
By now, we’ve all heard that we need to try to avoid antibiotics. But did you know that at least 50% of all antibiotic prescriptions are unnecessary? This conjures up images of bored tired careless time-pressed doctors, but I think that is the wrong image. I think a lot of well-educated people who are otherwise getting good care are ending up on too many antibiotics because doctors don't have enough other tools.
The illnesses for which antibiotics are often not needed range from a variety of upper respiratory infections (bronchitis, sinusitis, pharyngitis and otitis), to skin infections, and perhaps urinary tract infections. In functional medicine, we almost always focus on improving the gut microbiome. Thus, I am often disappointed when, in the middle of trying to improve their inflammation, my patients unnecessarily end up on antibiotics!
The list of where antibiotics don’t help just keeps growing. We know of several conditions where antibiotics just set you up for the next infection by eliminating the beneficial bacteria that keep things in check.
Here’s what I would do for some common conditions:
There is no evidence that antibiotics make a difference here. Whenever a study is done comparing different antibiotics and placebo, no difference is detected. Yet so many of my patients swear that they would get extremely sick if they didn’t have their antibiotics. So since sinusitis is a viral illness (unless you have a fever of 102.5); and since you can’t kill bacteria before they develop (resistant ones would develop in their place); here’s what I would like people to try before filling a prescription: an antiviral regimen. Purchase a bottle of Sambucol (NOT Sambucus) from Amazon ahead of time and keep it in your house in case you get a virus. At the first sign that you are coming down with a cold, take a dose of Sambucol and call me for a full antiviral protocol: it involves large doses of vitamin A, vitamin D, and other supplements. Let’s try to nip this in the bud and give you some strategies for the future.
2. Ear infections
While these are very painful, about 99% of them resolve on their own, and that is also true in most children. I like to use ear drops with garlic and mullein, and if the infections are frequent, look for an underlying cause of allergies, such as food intolerance, or a history of water damage in the home.
3. Skin infections
The first line of treatment for a break in the skin (a cut or abrasion) should be careful cleansing with soap and water, and very quick scrubbing of the area to remove dead skin. It is very hard for bacteria to infect live skin, but they go for those leftover bits if you are too gentle. Then elevate the area if appropriate, to prevent excessive swelling and give infection-fighting cells a chance to get to the wound.
This is also almost always viral. The exception is for chronically ill people, such as long-time smokers with chronic bronchitis, who can get their diseased lungs infected with bacteria. The rest of us just get cough with phlegm (that is the definition of bronchitis). It does not matter whether the phlegm is clear, creamy, yellow or green – it’s all viral (rust or blood requires investigation). Make sure you drink plenty of water to keep phlegm thin so you can cough it out more easily. If you get bronchitis often, let’s look for an underlying source of inflammation. I know from personal experience that improving your overall health can eliminate bronchitis from your life completely. But please avoid antibiotics.
5. Bladder Infections
These are very common. They start with feeling like you need to urinate frequently, and a sensation of burning when urinating. Many women know to quickly get started on some cranberry concentrate, but don’t have any additional tools. When the cranberry fails, too many rush to their primary care provider, or even call and get a prescription over the phone. If you are at risk of urinary tract infections, please call me and let’s have a short visit. There are several treatments that would be appropriate for non-pregnant adults.
So are they placebo?
While the effect of unnecessary antibiotics could simply be placebo, it does seem like it could be something else when so many people swear by them. One theory I have is that antibiotics make people feel better by changing the mix of gut bacteria. Perhaps there are other ways of accomplishing this! Get some rest; change your diet; take probiotics?
And in case you are wondering what else is overprescribed, here’s a list from the “Choosing Wisely” campaign, which attempts to improve the quality of care by physicians
7. Conjunctivitis: most pinkeye is also viral
8. Back pain: steroids do not work
9. Back pain again: MRIs rarely change management
10. Reflux in babies: antacids almost never work
11. Medications to bring down fever: almost never needed
12. Antibiotics for prevention of complications (for the dentist for example) when patients have mitral valve prolapse
13. Routine antacids to prevent ulcers in hospitalized patients
I hope this helps you keep your personal collection of beneficial bacteria happy and thriving!