Antibiotics… helping hand or harmful?

This week, Sally takes a look at the latest headlines surrounding antibiotics and how relying on them could be damaging to our health. Also this week, the surprising way you could help your chances of giving up smoking.

You might have seen some of the headlines this week suggesting that both doctors and patients should be relying less on antibiotics. These headlines have caused a bit of a stir, as for many of us, antibiotics are something that we can rely on to help when we have an annoying cough that has kept us up for 3 nights, or our child is miserable with a sore throat. We just want to pop into the local surgery for a quick prescription to cure us…it’s what has always happened. Surely we are entitled to demand antibiotics if we are ill?

Well, in actual fact, the chances are that your cough, sore throat, earache or other common ailment isn’t due to bacteria at all, but to a virus. And viruses don’t respond to antibiotics – they usually just get better on their own. There are of course some infections really do need antibiotics, and your GP can and will prescribe them if that is the case. Otherwise, having antibiotics is not just overkill… it is a waste of valuable NHS money (and, goodness knows, we need to save all the money we can at the moment!). What’s more, using antibiotics could actually be doing us harm.

Resistance to antibiotics

Over my surgical career I have seen a real change in the way we use antibiotics. Initially we doled them out at every opportunity, not just to treat, but in the hope of preventing infection from surgery. Today, the situation is very different. We are seeing more and more people resistant to first-line, second-line and even third-line antibiotics, making serious infections harder to cure. The fact is that the more we use antibiotics, the more bacteria will become resistant to them. And if that continues, there will come a time when the nasty chest infection that used to be quickly sorted out with a course of antibiotics, is no longer easily treatable.

Is this a serious risk?

The World Health Organisation thinks so. It regards antibiotic resistance as a ‘serious threat [that] is no longer a prediction for the future, it is happening right now in every region of the world and has the potential to affect anyone, of any age, in any country.’ It’s definitely a sobering thought.

And it isn’t just antibiotic resistance that is becoming a real issue. We are also seeing individuals come to actual harm from antibiotics, which don’t just kill off the bad bacteria – they kill off the good bacteria in our gut too. This can occasionally lead to life-threatening bowel problems. As a result, we are now extremely careful with our use of antibiotics – limiting them to essential cases.

So what can you do?

As well as understanding that antibiotics aren’t always the answer, the NHS recommends that you:
• use antibiotics only when prescribed by a doctor;
• follow the instructions given with regard to duration of antibiotics;
• never share antibiotics with others or use leftover prescriptions

And, my advice? In addition to these recommendations, try to keep yourself as healthy as possible. Good nutrition and keeping fit will help to keep you free of those bugs in the first place and reduce our need for antibiotics at all, saving those precious drugs for when we really need them!


quit-smokingWe all know that smoking is bad for us, but for some, fear of failing can put them off even trying to give up. Well, if you’re a woman wanting to give up your smoking habit, then, according to a recent study, you can improve your chances of resisting nicotine by timing when you give up to your menstrual cycle.

The study looked at patterns of craving-related brain activity at various times in women’s menstrual cycles and found that hormonal changes around the time of our period could possibly increase the activity of neural circuits that are associated with cravings – making us more likely to give in to those urges. They suggest that it may be easier to overcome these cravings in the 2 weeks leading up to your period.

While this was a small study, and I can’t vouch for its credibility, it certainly can’t hurt to give it a try. After all, anything that can help you to stop smoking and change your health for the better is a positive step in my eyes!

And if you want even more help and advice in giving up smoking, then head over to where you’ll find some useful resources and information.

Adrianna Mendrek, Laurence Dinh-Williams, Josiane Bourque, and Stéphane Potvin. Sex Differences and Menstrual Cycle Phase-Dependent Modulation of Craving for Cigarette: An fMRI Pilot Study Psychiatry Journal 2014