Antibiotics to the rescue?

By: Stefanie Wallace, Dec 20, 2010

How – and when – to know if you need antibiotics to cure what ails you

Feeling under the weather? With cold and flu season upon us, you aren't alone. When winter rolls around every year, it brings a host of sniffles, sneezes and cold medications. But how do you know when it's time to visit the doctor for something more than over-the-counter relief?

The word "antibiotic" comes from the Greek words anti, meaning against, and bios, meaning life. Although the translation seems ironic, antibiotics are used to fight bacteria, which is a life form. Bacteria are tiny organisms, and while some can cause illness to humans and animals, others are not harmful at all, and some are even good for humans.

When we're subjected to harmful bacteria, our bodies use our natural defenses – the immune system. Millions of white blood cells attack bacteria, and our bodies usually work to keep up and fight off infection. But sometimes, the infection is too great to fight, and antibiotics come to the rescue.

Antibiotics work to kill the bacteria and stop it from multiplying to treat the infection the body is fighting, explains Paul Cavanagh Sr., a pharmacist in Hagersville, Ont. "Strep throat, pneumonia, severe sinus infections, some ear infections and many skin and wound infections will need antibiotics to kick that pesky bacteria out," Cavanagh says.

But there are some conditions that antibiotics aren't effective in treating. Most common colds, flus, sore throats and coughs are caused by viral infections and, unfortunately, using antibiotics won't be effective in treating them – in fact, they'll cause more harm then good, Cavanagh says. Using antibiotics to treat a viral infection will cause your body to build up resistance against the treatment, so the next time you may need antibiotics, they might not work as effectively. "If you're unsure about what kind of infection you have, make a doctor's appointment," he says.

One thing Cavanagh stresses is the importance of following your doctor's directions. "Taking an antibiotic for only a few days and not the full course as prescribed by your doctor can be counterproductive," explains Cavanagh. "The treatment will only wipe out some of the bacteria, and the rest will stay in your body, making you more contagious."

Since graduating from McMaster University and Sheridan College, Stefanie has ventured into the world of community newspapers, web projects and trade publications. Her favourite topics include food, lifestyle, entertainment and environmental issues, and she loves learning about different ways to improve her health and wellness. Her work has appeared in Canadian Pizza, Canadian Biomass and on Besides reading, writing and copyediting, Stefanie loves to travel, cook and spend time with her friends and family.