Taking the Wrong Medicine for Flu

by Wellness Editor – MH

Antibiotics have been hailed by many as a sort of wonderdrug, as they have successfully been used to fend off many types of harmful bacteria. These medicines can’t do everything, however, and are not a viable treatment method against viruses. Furthermore, major health agencies and organizations have issued warnings about antibiotic overuse, which steadily erodes the effectiveness of these drugs over time. Given these two facts, it’s not surprising to learn that the use of antibiotics for influenza caught the eye of some very powerful officials.

Still a Problem After All These Years

Medicine and medical technology has improved by leaps and bounds since the mid-20th century. Despite this progress, influenza has still managed to remain a persistent threat to public health, infecting thousands of Americans each and every year. In 2012 alone, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 22,048 cases of flu from September 30th through the end of December.

You’re probably very familiar with flu shots, which numerous people receive at the start of every flu season. For those unlucky enough to get the flu, medicines like oseltamivir and zanamivir can help alleviate symptoms, though the latter should not be used by people with respiratory issues. Many flu patients don’t require any medications whatsoever, but instead rely on rest and a steady intake of fluids in order to recover.

Antibiotics, Antivirals and the Flu

As their name clearly indicates, antibiotics are designed to combat disease-causing bacteria. Since influenza is caused by viruses, antibiotic medications are unable to alleviate symptoms trigged by the flu. Though this limitation is widely known, a report released in July 2014 found that antibiotics were frequently prescribed to influenza sufferers. In addition to CDC personnel, the study also included contributions by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and the University Of Michigan School Of Public Health.

According to this report, antibiotics were commonly given to flu patients during the 2012-13 flu season. During this period, the authors estimate that nearly 30 percent of those seeking treatment for flu received such medications. The report analyzed 6,766 people with acute respiratory infection, a term used to describe infections that disrupt normal breathing patterns.

Testing revealed that 1,825 of these individuals had contracted influenza. In addition, the researchers had access to medical records detailing the treatments given to their subjects. Thanks to this source of information, it was determined that 540 people in this group had taken antibiotics for flu. Among those diagnosed with flu, the study reported that more than half (1020 out of 1825) faced a high risk of influenza-related complications.

The study also examined the treatment methods used on patients with confirmed cases of influenza. Flu patients threatened by additional health problems were almost as likely to be given antibiotics (24 percent) as antiviral medicines (28 percent). While some of these subjects may have had bacterial infections that necessitated antibiotics, the study notes that such patients were a distinct and small minority. Moreover, antiviral drugs were given to less than a fifth of subjects who could have benefited from their use.

The likelihood of developing complications from influenza tends to be greater amongst certain groups of people, some examples of which are shown below:

  • Small children
  • Senior citizens
  • Expecting mothers
  • Asthmatics and people with heart disease
  • Hospitalized patients who might have contracted flu

For these groups, the CDC recommends using antiviral medications to prevent the onset of additional symptoms.

In summarizing their research, the authors emphasized the need for health care practitioners to judiciously use both antiviral and antibiotic medications. Not only were antibiotics prescribed far too often among their study pool, but too few patients were receiving antivirals. Releasing their study in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, the research team wrote that “antiviral treatment was prescribed infrequently among outpatients with influenza for whom therapy would be most beneficial; in contrast, antibiotic prescribing was more frequent. Continued efforts to educate clinicians on appropriate antibiotic and antiviral use are essential to improve healthcare quality.”


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