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Opinion: 'Antibiotics don't work for colds, coughs, sore throats or sinus infections'

We are taking more antibiotics than ever before at a time when antibiotic resistance is increasing and not enough new antibiotics are being developed, writes Daragh Connolly.

Daragh Connolly President, Irish Pharmacy Union

THE WORLD HEALTH Organisation (WHO) has warned that the world is running out of effective antibiotics and that antimicrobial resistance is a global health emergency. They outlined that growing resistance to drugs that fight infections could “seriously jeopardise” progress made in modern medicine.

According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), 25,000 people die in Europe every year from pathogens (bugs) that are resistant to antibiotics, and four million patients across the EU are struck down with a healthcare-related infection each year. Every 10 minutes, someone somewhere in the world dies because an antibiotic didn’t work.

WHO has identified 12 pathogens which cause relatively common conditions including pneumonia and urinary tract infections that are increasingly resistant to currently available antibiotics. This is extremely worrying because WHO is not satisfied at the rate of progress in the development of new antibiotics. Meanwhile, a 2016 report from the Department of Health shows that antibiotic consumption rates in Ireland are increasing.

A problem that concerns us all

Simply put, we are taking more antibiotics than ever before at a time when antibiotic resistance is increasing and not enough new antibiotics which are capable of dealing with common pathogens are being developed.

This is a problem that should concern us all, and there is something we can do to help. The repeated and improper use of antibiotics is the single most important factor leading to antibiotic resistance in Ireland and around the world. If we allow antibiotic resistance to grow, the antibiotics used to treat infections today will become ineffective or will stop working altogether in the future.

This will not only cripple our ability to fight routine infections but will also undermine the treatment of more complicated infections, especially in patients with chronic diseases, and may make currently routine surgery unviable and potentially life-threatening.

Should only be taken when absolutely necessary

Antibiotics can also have a number of side-effects and, therefore, should be taken only when absolutely necessary. One in five people who take antibiotics will get side-effects such as diarrhoea, upset tummy or a rash, which may cause more misery than the illness the antibiotic was prescribed for.

They can also interfere with other medications you may be taking (like cholesterol-lowering drugs and oral contraception), or cause further illnesses like thrush. Much more rarely, antibiotics can cause side-effects serious enough to land you in hospital, such as a Clostridium Difficile infection.

It has been medically proven that antibiotics are only effective for bacterial infections and do not work for the common cold, or for coughs, sore throats or sinus infections which are caused by viruses. It is important to remember too that flu is an extremely contagious respiratory illness and can lead to serious illness, even death, particularly for elderly patients and those suffering from chronic illnesses or a weakened immune system.

Antibiotics will not cure the flu. The flu vaccination is the best way to reduce your chances of getting seasonal flu and spreading it to others.

Patient expectations

There can be an expectation that if you go to a GP with certain symptoms, you should be prescribed antibiotics. This pressure on healthcare professionals is contributing to the rise in antibiotic resistance, as antibiotics are taken unnecessarily.

Pressure is also put on healthcare budgets and hospital waiting lists; the ECDC reports that multidrug-resistant bacteria results in an additional €1.5 billion in healthcare costs in the EU each year.

The annual European Antibiotic Awareness Day (November 18) aims to educate the public and encourage healthcare professionals to ensure appropriate usage of antibiotics.

Daragh Connolly is President of The Irish Pharmacy Union (IPU). The IPU is the representative and professional body for community pharmacists in Ireland. Over 2,200 pharmacists are registered as members of the IPU, representing 95% of community pharmacies in Ireland.

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About the author:

Daragh Connolly  / President, Irish Pharmacy Union

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