‘Science Says’ Sunday – Bacterial vs Viral

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My youngest has been sick with one thing or another since December. First it was a stomach bug (December), then it was the flu (January), and just this past week…strep throat (February)! Poor guy can’t catch a break. This series of illnesses inspired today’s post. You see, back in January, we took him to the doctor because he wasn’t feeling well. We learned that he had the flu and so they sent us home with a tons of medicine. Among the things they sent us home with, was Tamiflu.

What is Tamiflu? And why didn’t we get antibiotics to treat his flu?? Well, the flu is caused by a virus. Flu is short for influenza, and influenza is the virus that causes us to become sick. A virus is a super small organism that enters the body, and shacks up in our cells, and makes more copies of itself to cause disease. It basically tricks our cells into making more virus! Sneaky little things! Interestingly, viruses NEED our bodies to survive. They need a living host to live and cannot live outside a living host. Viruses, like the flu virus, CANNOT be killed with antibiotics. Anti (against) biotics (living things) are used to kill bacteria, most often, used to kill bacteria that is causing disease in our bodies. Tamiflu is an ‘anti (against) viral (virus)’ medicine, and helps stops the flu from taking over in our bodies. It makes it stop making more flu virus, if that makes sense. 🙂

Not a month later, he was sick with ‘strep throat’, which IS a bacterial infection, and does require antibiotics. There are two tests he got both in January and February: one was a flu test, where they test to see if a person is positive for the influenza virus; and the second, a strep test where they swab a persons throat to see if they are positive for Streptococcus bacteriaIn January, he tested positive for flu and negative for strep, so he received the anti-viral medicine, Tamiflu. In February, he did not test positive for flu, but did test positive for strep, so he got an antibiotic! I hear people say that they need antibiotics when sick with things like the flu, colds, sometimes even stomach viruses, which as you’ve now learned, are caused by viruses and CANNOT be treated with antibiotics. Antibiotics would not help to make you better if what is causing you to be sick is a virus.

Well, what if you want antibiotics anyway? Too often I hear people say, “Man, I wish my doc would have just given me a shot in the butt”, usually referring to either antibiotics or steroids (steroids are a topic for another day). WELL…taking antibiotics when you don’t really need them is, hmm, not TERRIBLE immediately, per se, but pretty bad long term; it can lead to antibiotic resistance! According to the Centers for Disease Control:

“1. Antibiotic resistance does not mean the body is becoming resistant to antibiotics; it is that bacteria have become resistant to the antibiotics designed to kill them.

2. When bacteria become resistant, antibiotics cannot fight them, and the bacteria multiply.

3. Some resistant bacteria can be harder to treat and can spread to other people.

4. Antibiotics do not work on viruses, such as colds and flu, or runny noses, even if the mucus is thick, yellow or green. Antibiotics also won’t help some common bacterial infections including most cases of bronchitis, many sinus infections, and some ear infections.”

Remember that antibiotics do save lives. They are very important when you have an infection that is caused by bacteria. They are not necessary when you have an infection caused by a virus. Although we may be tempted to ask for antibiotics for things like the flu, a cold, or a sore throat, know that most often, these are caused by viruses and antibiotics are not what you need to tackle those crummy invaders!

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