When I have an infection does my doctor not always prescribe antibiotics?
You may be surprised that you have not been given a prescription for an antibiotic when you have been told “you have an infection”. This is because many infections are caused by viruses. Antibiotics kill bacteria but have no effect on viruses. Viruses cause most infections of the nose, throat, ears and chest. Stomach upsets (diarrhoea and vomiting) as well as the flu are also viral infections. Our own immune system gets rid of these infections, antibiotics have no effect. There are also good reasons to not use antibiotics when they are not needed; antibiotics may cause side effects such as diarrhoea, rashes, feeling sick, etc. These may develop on top of any other symptoms from the virus infection. In the past, overuse of antibiotics when they have not been necessary has led to some bacteria becoming resistant to treatment. This means that they are not as effective when they are really needed. Antibiotics do not speed up recovery of most nose, throat, ear, chest, stomach and flu illnesses.
So what can you do?
Viruses can go on for several days and make you feel unwell. We can’t give anything to get rid of the infection but you can use things to ease the symptoms such as paracetamol or aspirin to ease any aches, pains, headaches and reduce fever. Aspirin must not be given to children under 12. Paracetamol liquid such as Calpol and Disprol are best for children. Also having a lot to drink prevents mild dehydration. This may develop if there is a fever and can cause a headache and feeling of tiredness (common with virus infections) much worse. Do not wrap up but try to cool down if you have a fever. This is particularly important in young children. Take the clothes off young children if they have a fever and give paracetamol (Calpol). It is quite safe and a good idea for children to get some fresh air. Do not over wrap them when you take them out, just put on their normal outside clothing. You can also use the technique of ‘tepid sponging’- placing the child in a bath of luke warm (NOT COLD) water to help bring the temperature down. Your pharmacist is also always a good source of advice.
What if symptoms change?
Most virus infections clear without complications. Occasionally a virus infection may develop into a more serious condition. It is best to see a doctor to review the situation if the illness appears to change, becomes worse or if you are worried about any new symptoms.
Is it the family doctor I need?
For some very serious conditions such as severe bleeding, chest pain suggesting a heart attack, or severe shortness of breath, it may be more sensible to dial 999 and ask for an ambulance. The crew on board the ambulance provide emergency care as well as rapid transport to hospital. This is often the quickest lifesaving treatment. In cases of injury, where a broken bone is suspected or stitches may be needed, going straight to the hospital often makes more sense than calling your family doctor, who may not have the facilities to deal with this kind of problem.
Many common illnesses (coughs, colds, sore throats, ear-ache and upset stomachs) may be eased by a simple home remedy or medicine such as a painkiller or other medicine easily obtained from your chemist, who will be happy to advise you. Remember the quick and easy way of getting medical advice is to call NHS 111 on 111.