Kitchener-Waterloo·Audio

Antibiotics aren't always needed when sick, pharmacist says

A university professor is sounding alarm bells over the way we are consuming antibiotics in the modern era.

Pharmacy expert calls for changes in the way we approach medication

A pharmacy professor at the University of Waterloo says there's a lack of monetary incentive for drug companies to create new antibiotics as natural resistance emerges. (iStock)

Next time you have a cold or the flu, don't turn to antibiotics to help you get better because they won't fight a viral infection.

That's the message that Kelly Grindrod wants to emphasize. Grindrod, a pharmacist and an assistant professor with the University of Waterloo School of Pharmacy, says it's a common misconception that antibiotics can treat a virus, but that's not true. 

"Antibiotics can only treat bacteria," Grindrod told Craig Norris, host of CBC Radio's The Morning Edition in Kitchener-Waterloo. "Things like cold or a flu are caused by a virus and those can't be treated by an antibiotic."

"We should be using antibiotics when we have a bacterial infection," she adds. For example, acute bronchitis is a viral infection, not a bacterial infection. 

We're seeing growing resistance for a lot of conditions.- Kelly  Grindrod , UW pharmacy professor

"One of the biggest challenges is that many of us think that we need an antibiotic when we're sick, so one of the biggest predictors of getting an antibiotic is going to the doctor wanting an antibiotic," says Grindrod.

The public perception toward antibiotics is forcing doctors to reassure patients that they are providing good care without necessarily writing up a prescription for antibiotics. The professor says it's much easier for them to hand out the prescription than going back and forth with someone who clearly has one goal in mind — getting antibiotics. 

Check with your doctor

People should also know that antibiotics can come with serious side effects such as diarrhea, rashes and allergies, according to Grindrod. 

"If you've had a viral infection and are given an antibiotic, you're much more likely to believe that antibiotics work for those types of infections because you get better on your own anyway," she says. "So you get better not because you're taking an antibiotic, you just happen to be taking an antibiotic."

Pharmacy expert Kelly Grindrod says people should only be using antibiotics to fight off illnesses caused by bacteria, not viruses. (Twitter)

But it never hurts to check with your doctor to see if that sore throat is caused by a virus or bacteria because how the two are treated varies significantly. 

Antibiotic apocalypse 

Next week is World Antibiotics Awareness Week, a project by the World Health Organization to draw attention to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance, something that Grindrod says is sometimes referred to as the "antibiotic apocalypse."

Bacteria become resistant to existing antibiotics either through natural selection or because, for example, a person is prescribed a round of antibiotics, and doesn't finish them. The bacteria that aren't killed off can become resistant to the drugs and then pass the mutation along. 

"We're seeing growing resistance for a lot of conditions," Grindrod says. "Naturally, resistance emerges."

Grindrod says there haven't been major developments in antibiotics over the past few decades because there's no financial incentive for drug companies to invest in pills that are only required occasionally versus a cholesterol pill someone would take for the rest of their life. 

"We don't have a lot in the pipeline," Grindrod says of new antibiotics. 

Are you really allergic?

If you grew up thinking you're allergic to penicillin, the original antibiotic, you may want to get tested to make sure.

"The problem is that being allergic to penicillin is not being allergic to one drug, it's actually being allergic to a whole class of medications," said Grindrod. That includes about 15 similar medications that doctors won't be able to prescribe.

"The drugs that they do prescribe aren't necessarily as effective and might have more side effects," she said.

Kelly Grindrod is giving a talk on antibiotics for the public Thursday, November 12 at 7:00 p.m. at the University of Waterloo School of Pharmacy in Kitchener.

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