When a trip to the doctor could be harmful to your health

It’s common knowledge that antibiotics under the right circumstances can be lifesavers, but misuse of these medications can be risky for your health. See how overprescribing of antibiotics can affect you, and learn what you can do to protect yourself.

When you visit your doctor you have every right to expect that they will  “do no harm", which is one of the most widely referenced phrase attributed to medical ethics and one which most patients think their doctors follow. But what happens when busy doctors don’t follow the rules with regards to antibiotic use? If you are prescribed antibiotics unnecessarily, it can cause you some problems both now, and in the future.

A young man recently visited his family physician’s office and saw one of the mid-level providers, a Nurse Practitioner, for complaints of a high fever for 3 days along with sore throat and mouth sores. The Nurse Practitioner examined the patient, and told him that he probably had a virus, but wrote out a prescription for antibiotics anyway. No testing whatsoever was done on the patient. There was no strep test, no blood test, and no other tests were ordered.

To further complicate this case, the patient couldn’t eat very much food because of the mouth sores and from feeling fatigued and worn down. So after four (4) days into taking the antibiotic prescription, the patient decided not to continue the antibiotics because they upset his stomach.

overuseofantibiotics Here’s an analysis on why this health care practitioner could have caused her patient much more harm than good by not following sound medical practices:

1. If the health care professional tells you it’s probably a virus, they should not be prescribing antibiotics, especially if this is the first occurrence of a problem and they’ve done no throat culture or other test to determine that it is a bacterial.

Taking an antibiotic for a viral infection does you absolutely no good, in fact, it can be harmful.

2. If your health care professional does conclude that the infection is bacterial in nature, and they are going to prescribe antibiotics,  it is important for the to take the time to properly educate you as to how to take the medication and that side effects such as nausea are common.

3. A discussion should have ensued about how to take the medication i.e.: with food or without food etc, and what to do in the event that nausea develops. If your doctor doesn’t help you with that information, then you can always consult your pharmacist as they may be a better source for coming up with solutions for how to minimize side effects and or to suggest alternative medications that you can ask your doctor to prescribe if a medication is causing too many side effects or discomfort.

4. Although antibiotics come with a written instruction form, it is always important for the doctor or health care practitioner to discuss verbally with the patient, the importance of finishing up the entire antibiotic prescription. Many patients either start feeling better several days into the prescription course, and think they “don’t need” the antibiotics anymore, or they may stop taking their antibiotic prescription because of side effects like nausea, which happened in this patient’s case.

Unfortunately, by stopping antibiotics halfway through the prescribed course of treatment, or before the entire prescription is finished, can cause some bacteria in the body to be killed or slowed from multiplying,  but there may be some who survive, and because the entire prescription was not finished, then the harmful bacteria that did survive can come back even stronger than the first time, or develop into what’s called “super bugs” like MRSA which are resistant to treatment and can cause serious illness or even death in some cases. 

If you take antibiotics when you don’t need them, you run the risk of them not working when you DO need them!

Patient Tips: When Your Doctor Prescribes Antibiotics:

1. Ask first, before you fill or start taking the prescription if the health care professional is certain that your illness is bacterial in nature and will be helped by the antibiotic.

2. If the health care provider says they’re “not sure” or “don’t know” but are prescribing the antibiotics “just in case” to “see if they help”, resist the urge to take them and either seek out another opinion from a health care professional, ask your pharmacist, or ask your original physician what the risks would be if you just “wait it out” and see if the original problem resolves. 

3. You can also ask for other tests to be done to confirm the presence of a bacterial infection. If for example, a throat swab for strep throat comes back negative, and all your other symptoms point to a cold rather than a bacterial infection, then ask your doctor if it may be better for you to see if you can treat your cold at home using the remedies that are useful for colds. 

4. If your doctor is still insistent on giving you an antibiotic prescription, then ask them to detail the risks and side effects of the medication. If your doctor says they are giving you an antibiotic for a viral infection you may want to seek another opinion, as antibiotics are not effective against viruses.

5. Never stop taking antibiotics before the entire prescription is finished. If you’re having nausea or other side effects from the medication, call your doctor or pharmacist and get suggestions on food to eat with your medication if food is recommended. Sometimes patients don’t eat enough before taking certain medications that should be consumed with food, and therefore their stomach is upset. Other times, certain foods can minimize nausea so ask for specific recommendations on foods to eat that may help you feel more comfortable when taking the medication if food is permitted alongside the medicine.

Bottom line is that although technically your doctor or health care professional should not be prescribing antibiotics for a viral infection, it is in your best interest to also know this, and to question your health care provider about their reasons for prescribing a specific medication. Don’t assume that a prescription is needed for all types of illnesses or conditions. Sometimes medical professionals feel that they are not being perceived as being helpful if you don’t leave their office with a prescription. And doctors, even if they try not to be influenced, can be subconsciously motivated by the pharmaceutical industry’s policies of providing free gifts and samples and gifts to physicians who prescribe their medications. So it’s always in YOUR best interest as a patient, to investigate fully the risk vs. potential benefit of any new medication or existing medication that you take.  With some family physicians seeing 30 or more patients per day, your best chance of having health care that benefits you is to stay informed and educate yourself on your options. Use your doctor as a partner in your health care decisions, but don’t assume that your doctor always knows best. It’s YOUR Body, so treat it like the valued asset that it is!