Citing an epidemic of antibiotic-resistant infections, health experts are alarmed that some grocery-store pharmacies — including Wegmans, ShopRite, Giant, and Stop & Shop — are providing free generic antibiotics to customers who bring in prescriptions.
Infectious disease experts say that the stores are using the cold and flu season to entice consumers to use antibiotics even though it's well known that they're ineffective against viral illnesses and, in fact, such use is risky.
When properly prescribed and administered, antibiotics are effective against bacterial infections, killing or slowing down the growth of germs. But viral infections (including those causing colds, the flu, most sore throats, bronchitis, and sinusitis) do not respond to antibiotics, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
And antibiotic misuse can encourage the growth of bacterial strains that can't be killed by commonly used antibiotics, leading to the creation of "super bugs" such as methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) that can spread through households and communities. Indeed, a new study reports an "alarming rise" in antibiotic-resistant head and neck infections in young children in recent years. Researchers say that more elementary-age kids are developing Staphylococcus aureus ("staph") infections that do not respond to commonly used anti-staph antibiotics, and note that the rate of ear, nose, and throat infections resistant to standard drug treatment increased dramatically over a 6-year period.
As a result, the Infectious Diseases Society of America says that grocery stores looking to help customers during cold and flu season could offer free flu vaccinations rather than free antibiotics.
What This Means to You
Antibiotic resistance is a widespread problem, and one that the CDC calls "one of the world's most pressing public health problems." Bacteria that were once highly responsive to antibiotics have become increasingly resistant.
What should you do when your child gets sick? To minimize the risk of bacterial resistance, keep these tips in mind:
- Follow the advice of your doctor to use antibiotics only if your child's infection is likely to have a bacterial cause.
- Use antibiotics as prescribed — and, if they are used, complete the whole course as instructed.
- Don't save antibiotics for next time.
- Never use another person's prescription.
Help fight antibiotic resistance by taking simple steps to prevent the spread of infections. Encourage hand washing, make sure your kids are up to date on immunizations, and keep kids out of school when sick.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: January 2009