Antibiotics: Enemy or Friend? - Intercare Health Hub

Antibiotics: Enemy or friend? | 3 min read

The last century saw a revolution in the tools that we have available to fight contagious diseases. Two of the most important are antibiotics and vaccines.

In 1928, Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered a bacteria-killing chemical from a mould growing in his culture plates.  Penicillin became the most effective life-saving drug in the world, conquering such dreaded diseases as syphilis, gonorrhoea, tuberculosis, gangrene, pneumonia, diphtheria, and scarlet fever. Many more antibiotics were discovered because of it, and by the middle of the 20th century, antibiotics had become the treatment of choice for diseases caused by infections. It is estimated that penicillin has saved at least 200 million lives since its first use as a medicine in 1942.

Fleming also discovered very early that bacteria developed antibiotic resistance whenever too little penicillin was used or when it was used for too short a period. However, decades of overuse created new antibiotic-resistant “superbugs”, which are resistant to several types of antibiotics.

Do you really think you need a prescription for antibiotics? Think again. Up to 50% of antibiotic prescriptions are unnecessary. It is time to rethink the why, when and what of antibiotic use in order to ward off a global health crisis.

Even though general practitioners educate and advise patients regarding the use of antibiotics, patients still believe that a prescription for an antibiotic is the one-and-only treatment they need to get better.

Your doctor may be able to determine whether an illness is viral or bacterial by listening to your medical history, doing a physical exam and assessing your symptoms.

A viral infection usually presents with flu-like symptoms like:

  • body pain
  • headaches
  • abdominal pain
  • watery diarrhoea and
  • a clear runny nose

Fevers usually peak every 4 to 6 hours on the first day, spacing to 8 and 10-hourly on the second day and lasting an average of 3 to 4 days. A fine rash often appears on the third day.

Antibiotics are not effective against viral infection. Children and adults respond well to over-the-counter (OTC) medicine containing paracetamol, anti-inflammatories and antihistamines as well as other remedies to help them feel better like rest, keeping hydrated, saline nasal sprays, and humidifiers.

Call your doctor if you or your loved one still feel sick or seem to be getting worse.

Patients should be 24-hours temperature (fever) free before they can return to school or work.

A bacterial infection typically presents with symptoms like:

  • an abnormally smelly breath
  • constant sore throat
  • painful ears
  • sticky eyes
  • discoloured mucus
  • shortness of breath
  • burning urine
  • bloody stool
  • neck stiffness
  • headaches accompanied by vomiting, as well as
  • fevers lasting longer than 3 days
When you’re diagnosed with a bacterial infection, the benefits of taking an antibiotic outweigh the risks. But if you have a viral infection, taking an antibiotic will not clear up the condition and it does more harm than good.

Trust your doctor to decide whether you have a viral or bacterial infection and don’t insist on an antibiotic if he or she advises otherwise. Do not ask the pharmacist for an antibiotic, either. Rather ask your doctor to review you in 24 hours if your symptoms persist than pushing for an antibiotic when he/she decides not to prescribe it. Specific bacteria will need a specific type of antibiotic. Using antibiotics recklessly leads to resistance whereas limiting use could keep you healthier in the long run.

Next time: Don’t insist on a prescription for an antibiotic if you have a viral infection. Trust your doctor’s diagnosis and rather just wait and see.

  1. The Case Against Antibiotics, available at:
  2. Inventions that drive modern life expectancy, available at:
  3. Alexander Fleming, available at:
  • Dr Desere Ferreira (Intercare Irene & Umhlanga)
  • World Health Organization
  • Center for Disease Control

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