Prescribing antibiotic science facts

By Ofa Fitzgibbons

15 May 2020

4 minute read

A woman pouring pills into her left hand.

Half of Australians use a course of antibiotics each year. We can make sure they stay effective by using them properly.

Given the current pandemic, we are consuming loads of information. Information about health matters such as infections, viruses and vaccines. But how much do we really know about things like germs and antibiotics? 

Half of Australians use a course of antibiotics each yearYet antibiotics are losing their effectivenessThe problem is that bacteria are becoming resistant to the very treatments being used to help us feel better. This is known as antimicrobial resistance (AMR)It poses a serious – and growing – threat to human health.  

With AMR on the rise globally, we’re on a mission to help everyone understand what this means for human, animal and environmental healthWe’re excited to be involved in the OUTBREAK project. OUTBREAK is an AI-powered system that will generate trusted information on antibiotic resistance in Australia.  

While our researchers are tackling this challenge, let’s sort the facts from fiction about antibiotics.  

#1: A virus and bacterial infection are the same thingFICTION 

Both viruses and bacterial infections are tiny micro-organisms that are spread in the same way and have similar symptoms. But they are different and need different treatments.  

Bacteria is often a single complex cell. It can survive on its own either inside or outside the body. On the other hand, viruses are smaller. They also need a host to multiply, such as a human or an animal. Viruses cause infections by entering and multiplying inside a host’s healthy cells.  

#2: You can treat pretty much any infection with antibiotics. FICTION 

Antibiotics are one of our most powerful tools for fighting lifethreatening non-viral diseases. Generallytheir purpose is to prevent and treat infections caused by bacteria or fungi. But it’s only in people, animals and crops.  

However, almost all antibiotics used today were developed about 40 years ago. Only one new class of antibiotics launched to market in the last 25 years. This is a worry. It’s a few of the many reasons why we need to use antibiotics correctly and combat AMR 

#3It’s okay to take antibiotics to treat my cold. FICTION 

The common cold is often caused by a virus (eg. rhinovirusesand not bacteria. There is no ‘cure’ for a common cold and it will get better on its own. Using antibiotics to treat a virus won’t workIt will also make them less effective for the things they’re meant to treat. It’s always best to see your doctor first though to determine if you have a cold or something else.  

A woman holding two red tablets.

If you have antibiotics for your cold, don’t use them. Using them like this will only harm your health in the long-term.

#4I can take antibiotics to treat coronavirus. FICTION 

It’s in the name… the coronavirus is a virus and can’t be treated with antibiotics. In most cases of a viral illness, your own immune system will kick in and fight off the illness.  

#5: I can stop taking antibiotics as soon as I feel a bit better, even if I haven’t finished them. FICTION 

There has been a lot of research into how long antibiotic courses should beThis research determines the shortest possible length of course needed to completely kill all bacteria. If you have an infection, the kind of antibiotics your doctor prescribes and the length of the course should be based on the best evidence. 

Feeling better or an improvement in symptoms doesn’t always mean that the infection has completely gone. Your doctor has undertaken years of training and has access to the latest evidence, so always follow their advice.

Evidence is emerging that shorter courses of antibiotics may be just as effective as longer courses for some infections. Shorter treatments make more sense. They’re more likely to be completed properly, have fewer side effects, and are likely to be cheaper. They also reduce the exposure of bacteria to antibiotics. This reduces the speed by which the bacteria develops resistance. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) publishes guidelines about treatments for different infections. They also recommend treatment duration and doses of antibiotics based on the best clinical evidence for each case. We continuously review the latest research so that we can provide updated recommendations to health professionals.