Thursday, November 08, 2007

Why antibiotics can't cure colds...

America is a wonderful country, in which I have been exposed to all sorts of fabulous new inventions and devices I laughingly thought I could live without back home in the 'old country.'

Things like the bagel guillotine - imagine us primitive Brits, still cutting our bagels with old fashioned knives! Or the perfect pancake maker, which guarantees that your pancakes flip perfectly - and don't end up on the ceiling (or the dog.)

But the American obsession with gadgets and gizmos has led to a very curious mentality amongst my new colonial chums - that there is a scientific answer to everything.

Nowhere is this more obvious - or more stupid - than in the blanket belief that you can cure a common cold with a dose of antibiotics.

Almost universally, every American I speak to will rush to their doctors at the first sign of a sniffle. They want antibiotics, they say. It's their medical insurance, they're footing the bill and they want a nice dose of penicillin. And normally, they get it.

Doctors I've spoken to explain that it takes five to ten minutes to inform a skeptical patient as to why antibiotics don't do anything to treat a cold - and can, in fact, make it worse. It takes just thirty seconds to write a prescription to get the pain-in-the-ass out of the office.

So millions of Americans dose themselves up with antibiotics every single year - curing not one single cold. Instead they commit a holocaust on friendly bacteria in their stomach and bowels.
The result? Many hurried trips to the bathroom and a growing number of bacterial cells that develop resistance to antibiotics.

This is why antibiotic resistant MRSA infections (which the Americans inexplicably called 'mursa') are running rampant, at a rate many times higher than that of even England.

Now the Science...

It's a pretty simple concept. Cold, coughs and the flu are caused by viruses - tiny little critters that mutate constantly, so the body never truly grows resistant to them.

Antibiotics attack bacteria, which are tiny little critters too, but much larger than viruses. In fact, some types of bacteria can even catch viruses, which goes to show how different they are.

If your body gets attacked by a cold virus, an antibiotic is completely ineffective in treating it. It simply cannot attack the virus. It just doesn't work.

In plain English: Antibiotics cannot cure colds.

It's like your car rumbling to a halt because you ran out of petrol - and you trying to fix the problem by topping up the radiator. Or, more accurately, it's like you setting a bear trap to catch an ant. The jaws clamp closed - but the tiny little ant is so small it can pass between the teeth unharmed.

Taking antibiotics when you have a cough, cold or flu does not do anything beneficial.

Don't just take my word for it! Look up antibiotics on Google and make up your own mind, or read what these people have to say about it - most of them have little MD's after their names:

"Antibiotics do not work at all in treating the common cold. Antibiotics are medicines that kill bacteria, not viruses. Many antibiotics work by disrupting the bacteria's cell wall. Viruses don't even have a cell wall." Alan Greene MD FAAP

"Something called a "rhinovirus" is the cause of the common cold. Bacterial infections are rarely the cause of upper respiratory symptoms so antibiotics will not help colds. Almost all cases of the common cold are caused by viruses, and antibiotics do not work against viral infections." Annual Meeting of the Infectious Diseases Society of America San Francisco

"Do not take an antibiotic for a viral infection like a cold, a cough or the flu. They should only be used when prescribed by a doctor to treat bacterial infections. Colds, flu, and most sore throats and bronchitis are caused by viruses. Antibiotics do not help fight viruses. And they may do more harm than good: taking antibiotics when they are not needed increases the risk of a resistant infection later. If you have a viral infection, antibiotics will not cure it, help you feel better, or prevent someone else from getting your virus." National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases/Division of Bacterial Diseases.

Big, fat placebos

A massive 60% of doctors will prescribe antibiotics when somebody comes to them complaining of having a cold. Why? Because in America's consumer culture, you don't want to go to your doctor (and shell out for your co-pay) only to be given a pat on the hand and told to go home and drink some chicken soup.

Doctors prescribe antibiotics to shut their patients up and get them out of their office.

Which is shocking, really. Antibiotics aren't placebos - nice harmless pills that don't actually do anything, but make a patient feel better because at least they're 'taking some medicine.'

Antibiotics are like a blitzkrieg on the bacteria in the human body, wiping out the friendly little bacteria in your tummy and gut that help you digest food and keeps your 'movements' regular.

But even worse than the flatulence and diarrhea, antibiotics help accelerate bacterial Darwinism. The bacteria that does survive the antibiotic genocide will be resistant to that type of antibiotic - and when they reproduce (and boy, can bacteria reproduce) the new legion of bacterial cells won't be stopped by a mere handful of drugs.

Decades of over prescribing antibiotics has started to create 'super bacteria' that's pretty much unstoppable. When nasty little flesh-eating bacterial infections develop this unhappy trait, they can tuck into tasty-tasty human flesh and all the pills in the world aren't going to stop them. We've managed to reverse a century of medical advancements and left ourselves in pretty much the same situation as a Victorian doctor faced with gangrene.

The answer in those days was amputation.

Okay, things haven't got as bad as that - but if the trend continues, it's only a matter of time until they do. By constantly prescribing antibiotics, doctors are basically un-inventing them. These miracle drugs are soon going to become totally useless.

And sadly, it's not just the idiots who pop pills when they have a sniffle who are going to suffer. They don't keep their newly evolved antibiotic-resistance to themselves. It spreads - fast.

That's why MRSA is such an enormous problem - and it's only going to get worse.

Not a Solution - Just a suggestion

If you have a cough or a cold, don't be an idiot. Don't demand antibiotics from your doctor. They do not work. Let me reiterate that, since it appears millions of Americans have still not got this point.


If you demand antibiotics when you have the sniffles, you are submitting your body to a totally unnecessary bacterial H-bomb - and the bacteria that survives the onslaught is not going to be as friendly as all that Streptococcus salivarius subsp. thermophilus and Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus you scoff in your breakfast yoghurt.

And doctors?

Doctors are the worst offenders, I'm afraid to say. The millions of stupid people who demand antibiotics to miraculously cure their colds at least have ignorance as a defence. But the doctors who prescribe them?

They should know better.

I mean, I know the difference between viruses and bacteria and I'm not even smart enough to organise a matching pair of socks every morning.

If you've got a medical licence, you have a responsibility to your patient. If they demand antibiotics because they have a sniffle, don't give in to their whining. Slap them upside the head [Do not really slap them upside the head - Editorial Bear] and tell them:

'I'm the one with the medical licence, Sunny Jim. You just sit tight, shut your trap and do what I tell you to."

It's tough love and boy, do we need it.

But more then that - if a doctor knowingly prescribes antibiotics - fully aware that they will be of no benefit to the patient whatsoever (and might actually make things worse) that isn't that malpractice? I mean, isn't that a very clear and straightforward case of malpractice?

Taking antibiotics when they're not needed can be harmful. It's as straightforward as that - and written in black and white by the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases/Division of Bacterial Diseases.

Malpractice? Or merely unethical?

Doctors traditionally sign the Hippocratic Oath. This is the ancient Greek oath written by the father of medicine, Hippocrates, pertaining to the ethical practice of medicine.

This is meant to be the creed doctors live by - even today - and by unnecessarily prescribing antibiotics, I think it's very clear that doctors are breaching several of the creeds. A modern version of the Hippocratic Oath, the Good Medical Practice pledge of 2006, declares:

  • Make the care of your patient your first concern
  • Protect and promote the health of patients and the public
  • Give patients the information they need in a way they can understand
  • Be honest and open and act with integrity
By stupidly prescribing antibiotics when they are not needed, doctors are breaching all four of those pledges. They are hurting the health of their patient, they are contributing to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, they are denying their patients the facts about viruses and bacteria and, by doing all of those things, they are acting totally without integrity.

Their defence might be that the public put them under pressure, demanding that they receive antibiotic medicine even when it's not what's best for them. If that's the case, doctors need to stand firm and we, the public, need to educate ourselves.

Which is a polite way of saying: If you bully your doctor into prescribing antibiotics for a cold, you're a BLOODY IDIOT.

Lecture over.

1 comment:

Suki said...

Bravo :D
It's not just Americans, although they are supposedly the worst offenders. The whole world needs to read this, and act upon it!

After all, steam, gargling, warm water, ginger, honey, basil and common sense have got billions of people through innumerable colds. Can't count for nothing, can it? :)

By the way, I got to your blog by Googling "How does ginger cure colds". Was wondering if it's an expectorant action or antihistamine. Any clues?