IRRESPONSIBLE: Doctors are prescribing antibiotics for the common cold
05/16/2017 // Amy Goodrich // Views

A stuffy nose, rattling cough, and fever are the typical symptoms of a common cold. While rest and strengthening the immune system are the best medicines to fight an army of sick-making viruses, many doctors unnecessarily prescribe antibiotics to treat the symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections such as acute bronchitis and the common cold.

Though antibiotics are potent medicines that may save your life one day, antibiotics fight bacteria, not viruses. In fact, antibiotics can do more harm than good. Prescribing antibiotics when they are not needed can lead to antibiotic resistance issues, turning treatable infections into potential killers.

Canadian researchers who aim to prevent harm caused by such overuse to protect public health found that nearly half of the Canadian seniors who go to a family doctor leave with a prescription for an unnecessary antibiotic, reported CBC News.

Antibiotic overuse, a growing health concern

For their study, published in the scientific journal Annals of Internal Medicine, the researchers looked at data of over 185,000 people aged 66 or older who went to a primary care physician in 2012 in Ontario. Dr. Michael Silverman, author of the study and chair of infectious diseases at Western, and his team found that even though most doctors felt that the infection was nonbacterial, nearly half of people still got an antibiotic.

He added that they believe that this overprescribing phenomenon applies to other age groups too and is not only happening in Canada. It's also occurring in the United States. Silverman was encouraged to study the effects of antibiotic overuse as a part of his research regarding potential severe side-effects of antibiotics. Previous studies have shown that antibiotics used in the treatment of diarrhea from C. difficile, a major health concern in Canada and around the world, can have serious side-effects.


"We also now realize these drugs can lead to irregular heartbeats and sudden death. Some of them can lead to tendon rupture. Some of them can lead to drug interactions and have people end up in the emergency room,” Silverman explained.

According to the study, the most common infections flagged for unnecessary antibiotic use are the common cold (53 percent), acute bronchitis (31 percent), acute sinusitis (14 percent), and acute laryngitis (two percent).

Though the researchers do not want to put all the blame on the physicians, they said they wanted to see what’s triggering these doctors to prescribe antibiotics when they are not needed to target the issue and provide better education.

Doctors do not spend enough time with their patients

Previously, researchers from the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland found that physicians, especially the new doctors-in-training, only devote about eight minutes of their time to each patient. In the same line, the Canadian researchers noted that antibiotic overprescribing tended to be more common among family physicians who were in a hurry to see more patients.

Furthermore, the authors of the study also stressed the possibility of "decision fatigue." Silverman explained that doctors constantly have to say no to patients who demand a prescription for antibiotics. U.S. research has shown that physicians tend to prescribe more antibiotics later in the day, or when they no longer find the energy to explain to patients that they don’t need antibiotics to treat their illness.

Since 70 percent of the antibiotic prescription for nonbacterial respiratory infections were for broad-spectrum antibiotics – or the ones that are often associated with patient harm and antibiotic resistance issues – this behavior "is strongly suggestive of inappropriate prescribing," the study's authors concluded.

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