Antibiotics are often the first choice of defense against bacterial infections like strep throat, cellulitis, bronchitis, ear infections, and even acne. They kill bacteria by obstructing the formation of the cell wall and contents or they stop bacteria from multiplying. Antibiotics are largely effective, and patients are usually cleared of the infection within a couple of weeks.
Some commonly prescribed antibiotics you may be familiar with include:
Antibiotics don’t destroy viruses
While antibiotics work well for most bacterial infections, they don’t fight viral infections. Unfortunately, many people are prescribed antibiotics before it’s clear whether a virus or bacteria is the cause of the infection.
This creates two major problems. First, taking unnecessary antibiotics contributes to developing antibiotic resistant bacteria. Second, it depletes the small and large intestines of “good” gut bacteria necessary for proper digestion and nutrient absorption.
Bacterial vs. viral infections – what’s the difference?
Both bacterial and viral infections are caused by microbes, but those microbes differ in structure, as well as the way they respond to medications. Bacteria are single-celled with a strong cell wall, surrounded by a flexible membrane that protects the fluid inside. They can self-replicate, survive in extreme temperatures, and just like the infamous cockroach, bacteria can even survive among radioactive waste.
Viruses are extremely small (much smaller than bacteria) and consist only of a thin layer of protein enclosing genetic material like DNA or RNA. And unlike bacteria, viruses cannot survive on their own or self-replicate—they need a host.
A virus reproduces by attaching itself to cells, reprogramming those cells to make more of the virus until the cell runs out of life and dies.
How antibiotics kill bacteria and why they don’t kill viruses
Antibiotics work by inhibiting ribosomes and breaking down the cell wall of bacteria, forcing the destruction of the cell. Because viruses don’t have a cell wall or ribosomes, the antibiotic has no effect.
Because it’s impossible for antibiotics to treat a virus, it’s important that a doctor distinguishes an infection as bacterial before writing a prescription in order to avoid prescribing unnecessary antibiotics.
For example, while it may seem sensible to prescribe antibiotics for a sore throat, only 10 of sore throats are caused by bacteria (strep throat). Despite this, doctors prescribe antibiotics for sore throats 60 percent of the time! Because of this, the CDC has been making a huge effort to educate the public and make them aware of what antibiotics do, and when they may do more harm than good.
Antibiotics create resistant strains of bacteria
The more bacteria are exposed to antibiotics, the more they adapt to survive, morphing into antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria in the process. For example, MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is a strain of Staphylococcus resistant to common antibiotics that can be deadly when contracted by people with a weakened immune system.
But resistance isn’t the only danger of over-prescription. Antibiotics can’t distinguish between wanted and unwanted bacteria, which means they kill “good” bacteria in the process.
Most bacteria are friendly
Bacteria aren’t all bad, in fact most are harmless and many are even helpful. For example, you rely on bacteria like Lactobacillus, in the small intestine, to digest your food by fermenting the carbohydrates the body can’t digest and breaking down the sugars in the dairy you consume.
The large intestine and colon are also home to important bacteria called Bifidobacterium that helps digestion by breaking down fat, carbs, and protein so your body can better absorb nutrients.
Probiotics can help restore “good” bacteria
You may have been told by your doctor to take probiotics a few hours after taking antibiotics. This is because probiotics help to restore healthy gut bacteria to the intestines. Taking probiotics with meals has benefits even when you’re not taking antibiotics.
The best solution is to educate yourself so you know when you should take antibiotics. Instead of automatically asking your doctor for antibiotics the next time you have an infection, let your doctor assess the situation to determine whether it’s bacterial or viral.
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