What should patients know about antibiotics?

When treating patients for common bacterial infections, the subject of antibiotics inevitably comes up. The conversation tends to be multi-dimensional: Patients may be concerned about the side effects of antibiotics, or they may have read that antibiotics are overprescribed and may not want to take them at all. In some cases, patients may even demand antibiotics for a viral infection and don't understand why that isn't a good treatment option.

Nurses are equipped with deep knowledge about antibiotics, but it can often be difficult to determine what aspects of that information are most relevant to patients. Continue reading to learn more about common questions patients have about antibiotics and how to answer them:

Common misconceptions about antibiotics
With so many kinds of medications on the market, it should come as no surprise that misconceptions and myths about antibiotics are widespread. In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) held the first World Antibiotic Awareness Week. Over the course of the week, WHO spread information about antibiotic resistance and what it means for patients. While surveying patients about antibiotic use, the organization uncovered several misconceptions.

"Patients may not fully understand antibiotic resistance."

As reported by the University of Minnesota, the WHO survey revealed that 76 percent of respondents believed antibiotic resistance is when one's own body becomes resistant to the prescribed drugs. It is, in fact, that bacteria within the body can become resistant to the drugs. Likewise, 64 percent of respondents believed that antibiotics could be used to treat illnesses other than those they are prescribed for, and roughly 33 percent believed it is fine to quit taking antibiotics as soon as symptoms dissipate. Each of these beliefs could contribute to increased antibiotic resistance, which in turn can lead to antibiotic-resistant "superbugs" that can be extremely difficult to treat.

CBS News reported that many people believe antibiotics can treat the common cold. As nurses know, colds are caused by viruses, which are not affected by antibiotics. According to the director of the Center for Virus Research at the University of California, Luis P. Villarreal, viruses are not considered to be alive because they are not able to reproduce on their own. Antibiotics either kill bacteria or prevent them from dividing – since viruses aren't alive and don't divide, these drugs are powerless to stop them.

What patients should know about antibiotics and resistance
In a clinical setting, it's usually not necessary to get too technical about how and why antibiotics work on bacterial or fungal infections. Nevertheless, nurses can treat this as an opportunity to provide some much needed education about antibiotic use. For instance, it's important to explain that patients should take all of their medication and that they shouldn't stop a regimen halfway even though the symptoms of their illness may have disappeared.

The Cleveland Clinic noted that it's also a good idea to explain to patients the difference between broad-spectrum antibiotics and targeted antibiotics. When a physician prescribes an antibiotic for strep throat, for instance, the nurse can explain why that drug won't work for other ailments – this discussion could help lower unnecessary antibiotic use.

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