Antibiotic Use – Independent of Physician Prescribing

A recent article in the Annals of Internal Medicine looked at individuals who took antibiotics without them being prescribed by physicians at a visit.  The authors looked at 31 published studies between January 2000 and March 2019.  The medications came from family and friends, online distribution sites, drugs prescribed for their animals by their veterinary doctors and those stored after a previous indicated use.   When asked about it, and the reasons why these patients took these medications, the main factors cited were lack of health insurance or lack of healthcare access, cost of physician visits or medications, long waiting times in clinics, embarrassment for needing antibiotics, lack of transportation and/or easy availability of antibiotics  from other sources.

We are currently going through an antibiotic resistance crisis in the world.  Most of the fault lays with agricultural industry feeding livestock tons of antibiotics to fatten them up. Patterns of resistance develop on the farms and are passed species to species.

To remedy this, the US agriculture industry, especially in chicken production, has cut back drastically on this process.  At the same time, we are requesting physicians to work with infectious disease doctors in stewardship programs to reduce their use of ineffective antibiotics and to prescribe with precision when these medications are needed.  It works. Studies are beginning to show the benefits of these programs.

Despite this, the pressure from patients to be given something when they pay for, and invest in, a medical evaluation for an infection is overwhelming. In the setting of telemedicine, as well as walk-in and urgent care centers, reviews and patient satisfaction survey results are tied to whether the patient was given an antibiotic whether it was indicated or not.

As bacteria become resistant to common and inexpensive antibiotics, pharmaceutical manufacturers are not being incentivized to produce newer more efficacious medications.  At the same time, older useful antibiotics which do not generate much of a profit are not even being ordered and stored by chain pharmacies that lose money each time the older generics are prescribed.

To begin solving this problem, an improvement of our health literacy is required. Education in schools and in public health announcements, both in print and social media, need to realistically address the issue. This education will not replace the need for access to health care and health, but it is a beginning to make individuals understand how, when and why these “miraculous” medications can and should be used.

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Antibiotic Associated Colitis Increases Risk

At least a half dozen times per week patient’s call with symptoms of a viral upper respiratory tract infection or present to the office for a visit with symptoms and signs of a cold.  These illnesses are caused by small viral particles which do not respond to antibiotic treatment.   Your body’s defense system attacks these viral particles and over a period of hours to days defeats them.   Despite years of ongoing public health announcements and handouts by doctors and nurses and attempts at patient education you find yourself negotiating with strong willed patients who want a “Z Pack” or some other antibiotic which they do not need.  “I know my body,” they argue.  “My northern or previous physician knew to always give me an antibiotic, why won’t you?”

The answer is quite simple. They do not work to shorten the course, intensity or duration of your illness. They do in fact put you at risk of developing complications of antibiotic use. When your infection requires the use of antibiotics to restore health, it is worth taking these risks. When you do not need the medication it definitely is not. This was confirmed by an article and research presented by E Erik Dubberke, MD of Washington University School of Medicine in Saint Louis, Missouri commenting on Medicare Data about the death rate associated with antibiotic related colitis infections due to Clostridia Difficile.  Bacteria normally reside in our large intestine and promote health and digestion.  When we prescribe an antibiotic it kills off the healthy and beneficial bacteria as well as the infection related bacteria. This destruction of healthy bacteria creates an environment conducive to “opportunistic “bacteria normally suppressed by the normal flora to invade and take over your gut. The resulting fever, cramping, diarrhea with blood occurs as the intestine become inflamed with colitis. One of the common opportunistic pathogens is Clostridia Difficile.

Dr. Dubberke looked at Medicare data and compared 175,000 patients older than 65 years of age and diagnosed with Clostridia difficile infection and compared them to 1.45 million control patients. He found that those with clostridia difficile infection had a 44% increased risk of death. When comparing admissions to nursing homes for treatment there was an 89% increased risk due to antibiotic related colitis care.

Antibiotics are wonderful when appropriate. They will always carry a risk of a side effect, adverse reaction or complication which is a risk worth taking in the correct setting.  It is clearly not worth the risk when your doctor tells you that it will not work.

CDC and ACP: Stop Prescribing Antibiotics for Common Respiratory Infections

The Affordable Health Care Act has created patient satisfaction surveys which can affect a physician’s reimbursement for services rendered plus their actual employment by large insurers and health care systems. This has created a fear of not giving patients something or something they want at visits for colds, sore throats and other viral illnesses. Aaron M Harris, MD, MPH, an internist and epidemiologist with the CDC noted that antibiotics are prescribed at 100 million ambulatory visits annually and 41% of these prescriptions are for respiratory conditions. The unnecessary use of antibiotics has resulted in an increasing number of bacteria developing resistance to common antibiotics and to a surge in Emergency Department visits for adverse effects of these medications plus the development of antibiotic related colitis. To address the issue of overuse of antibiotics, Dr Harris and associates conducted a literature review of evidence based data on the use of antibiotics and its effects and presented guidelines for antibiotic use endorsed by the American College of Physicians and the Center for Disease Control.

  1. Physicians should not prescribe antibiotics for patients with uncomplicated bronchitis unless they suspect pneumonia are present”. Acute bronchitis is among the e most common adult outpatient diagnoses, with about 100 million ambulatory care visits in the US per year, more than 70% of which result in a prescription for antibiotics.” The authors suggested using cough suppressants, expectorants, first generation antihistamines, and decongestants for symptom relief.
  2. Patients who have a sore throat (pharyngitis) should only receive an antibiotic if they have confirmed group A streptococcal pharyngitis. Harris group estimates that antibiotics for adult sore throats are needed less than 2% of the time but are prescribed at most outpatient visits for pharyngitis. Physicians say it is quicker and easier to write a prescription than it is to explain to the patient why they do not need an antibiotic.
  3. Sinusitis and the common cold result in overprescribing and unnecessary use of antibiotics often. Over four million adults are diagnosed with sinusitis annually and more than 80% of their ambulatory visits result in the prescribing of an antibiotic unnecessarily. “ Treatment with antibiotics should be reserved for patients with acute rhinosinusitis who have persistent symptoms for more than ten days, nasal discharge or facial pain that lasts more than 3 consecutive days and signs of high fever with onset of severe symptoms. They also suggest patients who had a simple sinusitis or cold that lasted five days and suddenly gets worse (double sickening) qualified for an antibiotic

Last year two patients in the practice who were treated with antibiotics prescribed elsewhere for situations outside the current guidelines developed severe antibiotic related colitis. They presented with fever, severe abdominal pain and persistent watery bloody diarrhea. Usual treatment with oral vancomycin and cholestyramine did not cure the illness. One patient lost thirty pounds, the other sixty pounds. Fecal transplants were required to quell the disease. At the same time community based urine infections now require a change in antibiotic selection because so many of the organisms are now resistant to the less toxic, less expensive , less complicated antibiotics that traditionally worked.

“My doctor always gives me an antibiotic and I know my body and what it needs,” can no longer be the criteria for antibiotic use.

Antibiotic Use in Sinusitis

In the Journal of the American Medical Association researchers reported that treatment with antibiotics did not improve the speed of recovery or perceived symptoms in patients who took antibiotics.   One hundred sixty-six (166) adults were either given a course of amoxicillin or a placebo three times a day for acute rhino sinusitis. There was no difference in symptomatology at day three or day 10 between the two groups.

If a physician documented severe nasal obstruction the use of antibiotics did produce some perceived improvement in symptoms. There were no differences in the groups for any secondary outcomes, including days missed from work or school, additional health care consultation or recurrence of symptoms .   All the patients were allowed to take medications other than antibiotics for symptom relief during the study.  The conclusion is that antibiotics are not necessary for the treatment of acute rhino sinusitis.

It’s Only a Cold …

As a concierge medical practice we pride ourselves on being available to help our patients with access to the doctor by phone and same day appointments. At this time of year we are faced with daily phone calls regarding cold or flu like symptoms.  Thus, I thought it appropriate to share some topical information which should be useful in helping anyone decide whether they should “ride out the storm” or give their doctor a call.

There are at least 1,500 different known viruses that lead to a viral upper respiratory tract infection sometimes known as “the common cold”.   With these, a high sustained fever of 101 degrees Fahrenheit is rare.  Aches and pains, nasal discharge with runny nose and post nasal drip are common. Dry cough advancing to a barking cough productive of clear, yellow and often greenish phlegm is common as well.  You’ll most likely feel miserable. Your sinus and head congestion make you feel like you are in a tunnel, a sound chamber, or wearing a deep sea diving helmet. Your appetite waxes and wanes. You are exhausted with the activities of daily living.  Getting out of bed to wash your face and groom yourself may seem as challenging as a 26.5 mile race up a hill.

Currently, there is no cure for the common cold. Antibiotics do not work.  A “Z Pack “does not speed up the process. An injection of antibiotic does not make it go away faster. The infection could care less if you have a high school reunion to go to in Philadelphia, a grandchild’s bar mitzvah or baptism, or a flight to Paris for a combined work/pleasure excursion. Frankly, once you have this type of viral infection you will most likely have to ride out the storm.

Furthermore, going to the ER and sitting and waiting to be seen doesn’t make the infection go away quicker. Paying for a visit at a walk in center or urgent care center where you are more likely to negotiate successfully for an unwarranted or needed antibiotic will not help either.

In most instances, your recovery from the virus will take 7-14 days providing you drink plenty of warm fluids, rest when you are tired and use common sense. Cough medicine may ease the cough. Saline nasal solution may clear the nasal congestion. Judicious use of a nasal decongestant under your physician’s supervision may help as well.  It will take time. You are contagious. No you should not go to the gym if you are feeling poorly. Chicken soup, tincture of time, hot tea with honey, plenty of rest and common sense are recommended remedies.

If at any point you still feel you have the plague, dengue fever, the bird flu or the Ebola virus come on in. We will take a look, evaluate your symptoms and likely tell you, “It’s a cold.”

Should We Treat Sore Throats With Antibiotics?

How many of us have called our doctor with a scratchy throat, mildly swollen glands, congestion and overall malaise and requested an antibiotic?   “I know my body best and if I take an antibiotic I knock it out quickly.” is a common refrain.

In most cases, sore throats are due to viruses. Fewer than 10% of sore throats are caused by bacterial Group A streptococcus.  Antibiotics such as a Z-Pack (Zithromax), Penicillin or Ampicillin do not kill viruses.  If by chance a patient has a sore throat and an upper respiratory tract infection, the length of illness before recovery averages 4-7 days with or without antibiotics -whether strep is present or not.

How then did the throat culture and use of antibiotics begin and what is its rational? In the 1940’s and 1950’s when antibiotics were being introduced to the public it was determined that streptococcus pyogenes was the cause of Rheumatic Fever.  Researchers found that by administering antibiotics to patients with a strep throat they could reduce the rate of acute Rheumatic Fever from 2% to 1% (notice that even with appropriate antibiotic use we cannot prevent all the cases of Rheumatic Fever).

Applying this data in 2011 we find that there is about 1 case of Rheumatic Fever in the United States per 1 million cultured strep throats. In other words, we must prescribe one million prescriptions for antibiotics for sore throat to prevent one case of Rheumatic Fever. In turn, these antibiotics may cause 2,400 cases of allergic reactions, 50,000 cases of diarrhea and an estimated 100, 000 skin rashes.  It doesn’t make sense.

In a recent editorial article in MedPage, an online periodical supported by the University Of Pennsylvania School Of Medicine, George Lundberg M.D. presented a cogent case against throat culture use and antibiotics in sore throats and bronchitis. He suggested that “physicians should not prescribe antibiotics for sore throats….  They don’t help. They often hurt. First, do no harm!”

As an internist dealing with adult patients I am not seeing the groups most likely to catch a strep throat which is young children 2-7 years of age and their caregivers.  If patients present with fever, exudative tonsillitis and pharyngitis with large swollen cervical lymph nodes I will still culture them.  I will treat based on their immune status, general health and risk of having a significant bacterial infection. If I choose to prescribe an antibiotic I will make an adjustment based on the culture results.

Honey May Be Effective at Killing Bacteria and Thwarting Antibiotic Resistance

I have on many occasions advised my patient’s ill with an upper respiratory infection and a cough to try some tea and honey. The recommendation is based on family suggestions bridging generations plus practical experience in noting its therapeutic effect when I have a cold and cough.  Of course in today’s world of randomized double blinded objective research studies it is nice to have some evidence to back the recommendation up.

Pri-Med released a summary of a study done at the University of Wales Institute Cardiff which shows the benefits of Manuka honey.  The honey is made from the nectar collected by bees from the Manuka tree in New Zealand. This honey apparently can hamper the ability of pathogenic streptococci and pseudomonas from attaching to tissue. This is an essential step in the initiation of acute infections.

Lead author Rose Cooper additionally pointed out that Manuka honey was effective at making Methicillin Resistant Staph Aureus “more susceptible to the antibiotic Oxacillin.” Methicillin resistant staph aureus is resistant to drugs like Methicillin and Oxacillin. They do not improve or cure the infection. If you add honey, the infections are now showing a response to Oxacillin .

This is very clearly early data with more studies needed. It will not prevent me from continuing to extol the virtues of tea and honey, as well as chicken soup, as part of the treatment of a viral or bacterial upper respiratory infection.