Antibiotics do no good against colds, but can do harm


Q: For many years my doctor gave me antibiotics whenever I went to him with a cold. He has now retired and I am going to a new doctor who refuses to prescribe antibiotics for my colds. I like this doctor and do not want to change again, but what can I do to convince him to give me antibioticswhen they are needed for a cold?

A: Instead of telling you how to convince your doctor to give you antibiotics for a cold, let me try and convince you that he is doing the right thing. In the first place, antibiotics are of no use in the treatment of colds or any other illness caused by a virus. Second, the indiscriminate use of antibiotics can cause bacteria to develop resistance so that you may harbor bacteria that start a serious infection that cannot be cured with commonly used antibiotics.

The author of an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association stated the proper attitude regarding the treatment of colds as follows: "Instead of demanding antibiotics from his or her physician, the consumer/patient should ask why one is being prescribed."

Penicillin and subsequent antibiotics have proven to be truly "miracle" drugs, saving the lives of many. But mutations are frequent during the rapid reproduction of bacteria by cell division. When exposed to an antibiotic (or other threats in the environment), mutations in some of the bacteria allow them to survive (become resistant to the antibiotic) by making changes in their structure or producing enzymes that destroy the antibiotic.

Dr. Margolis is professor of medicine and biological chemistry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

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