Antibiotics for viral infections are a big pet peeve of mine. No. Make that a huge pet peeve.
Some doctors prescribe antibiotics for coughs and stuffy noses because the patients want them. If you’re one of those patients who think that antibiotics make your coughs go away, or clear up your stuffy noses, or somehow make your sinus headaches vanish, or if you’re a doctor who prescribes antibiotics for these symptoms, this post is for you.
You’re killing people with your dumb demands and/or your inappropriate prescriptions.
MRSA stands for methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus. There is regular staph aureus — that bug is pretty much fading into the sunset and being replaced by staph aureus on steroids. Because so many people are requesting/using antibiotics for non-bacterial infections, the bacteria in their systems learn how to beat the antibiotics — in effect, making the antibiotics useless. For example, in our area, Levaquin is frequently prescribed by many doctors for obvious viral infections. Then, when people have a urinary tract infection, almost half of the strains of E. coli — the most common urinary tract pathogen — in our town are resistant to Levaquin and Cipro and all the other drugs in that family that would normally kick E. coli’s butt. We have had several patients who had simple UTIs turn into serious systemic infections because they were initially treated with Cipro or Levaquin for their urinary tract infection and the antibiotics didn’t help.
Now there’s a super duper bug that’s coming to a town near you. According to a recent article in Lancet Infectious Diseases, bacteria are now picking up a new gene called NDM-1 that makes the bacteria resistant to almost all antibiotics. Most of the bacterial with this gene were E. coli, but the gene can apparently can be relatively easily transferred to other bacteria. The only antibiotics that bacteria with this gene were sensitive to were tigecycline and colistin. Right now most of the isolates are in India and Pakistan, but it is only a matter of time before the super duper bugs have spread worldwide.
A 2007 JAMA article showed that MRSA infections were abundant (.pdf file). An editorial accompanying the JAMA article noted that “The estimated rate of invasive MRSA is greater than the combined rate in 2005 for invasive pneumococcal disease (14.1 per 100,000), invasive group A streptococcus (3.6 per 100,000), invasive meningococcal disease (0.35 per 100,000), and invasive H influenzae (1.4 per 100,000).” In addition, the editorial noted that if the predicted number of MRSA deaths was accurate, the 18,650 MRSA-related deaths in 2005 “would exceed the total number of deaths attributable to human immunodeficiency virus/AIDS in the United States.”
Currently, a study by the CDC is claiming that the incidence of MRSA is declining (I wasn’t able to find the study on the CDC’s web site) by between 17 and 27 percent in the past few years.
Even if MRSA goes away — which it won’t — there are still other resistant bacteria out there that are going to become a greater part of our lives. According to this San Fransisco Chronicle article, there’s “extremely drug-resistant tuberculosis” (XXDR TB). Doctors don’t even know how to treat this disease — or if they even can treat it. Less resistant TB can cost $100,000 per year to cure. Patients with XXDR TB will probably just die.
The San Fransisco Chronicle article also notes that drug-resistant infections killed more than 65,000 people last year — more than prostate and breast cancer combined. In excess of 19,000 of the patients who died from drug-resistant infections had MRSA.
So how do we stop the spread of resistant bacteria? It’s actually pretty simple.
1. Patients need to stop requesting antibiotics for nasal congestion, coughs, bronchitis, and “sinus infections.” Doctors need to stop prescribing antibiotics for these diseases. Norway nearly eradicated MRSA just by restricting antibiotic use. “We don’t throw antibiotics at every person with a fever. We tell them to hang on, wait and see, and we give them a Tylenol to feel better.” The slogan on a packet of tissues in Norway says “Penicillin is not a cough medicine.”
If we can’t change the habits of doctors who prescribe antibiotics in this country, then antibiotics need to become controlled substances and regulated by the DEA. It is that serious of a problem.
2. Wash your hands. Patients, doctors, everybody. Wash … your … hands. One friend wrote me and asked whether or not you’ll be viewed as a “trouble patient” if you request that your doctor wash his or her hands after entering your room. My reply was that if you politely tell the doctor (or nurse, or anyone else touching you) that you’re concerned about infections and politely ask them to wash their hands in front of you, there shouldn’t be any problems. If they take offense, kick them out of the room and call an administrator.
WhiteCoat is an emergency physician who blogs at WhiteCoat’s Call Room at Emergency Physicians Monthly.
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