Although winter is the season when many students find themselves suffering from the common cold or influenza, a recent study indicates that they should think twice about a prescription of antibiotics from a doctor.

In the study released early this week, researchers expressed concern over doctors who prescribe antibiotics to treat patients’ colds and flu-like symptoms. Since viruses cause both of these infections, treatment with antibiotics – designed to fight bacterial infections – is ineffective.

The researchers claim that the unnecessary use of antibiotics is one reason why the occurrence of drug-resistant germs in the United States is sharply increasing.

By the summer of 2004, the researchers predict that as many as 40 percent of the strains of the bacteria Streptococcus pneumoniae could be resistant to both penicillin and erythromycin. This form of strep causes thousands of cases of meningitis, sinusitis, ear infections and pneumonia each year.

Based at the Harvard School of Public Health, these researchers studied reports from sites in eight states, measuring how much drug resistance increased from 1996 to 1999. Penicillin resistance rose from 21.7 percent of strep strains in 1996 to 26.6 percent in 1999, and for erythromycin it increased from 10.8 percent to 20.2 percent.

“The use of antibacterial agents is highly correlated with the increase in resistance of Streptococcus pneumoniae,” the researchers said in the paper.

Robert Winfield, director of the University Health Service and specialist in internal medicine, supports the researchers’ claim that overuse of antibiotics accelerates the development of drug-resistant germs.

“Because (the bacteria) have been exposed to antibiotics, they mutate and become resistant. They, like us, want to survive,” Winfield said.

Although Winfield stressed that UHS does not support the practice of prescribing antibiotics for patients suffering from influenza or the cold, he realizes that there are doctors who, out of the desire to help their patients, will yield to this resort.

“In our nation, doctors tend to overuse antibiotics. Doctors feel the need to help their patients, especially when (the patients) feel awful and have been waiting hours to receive treatment,” Winfield said.

Candace Cato, a University medical student, said the Medical School teaches its students to use caution when prescribing antibiotics.

“In the last couple years, the prescription of antibiotics for the cold and flu has been looked upon unfavorably by the medical community. This is because papers started coming out and revealed the serious link between over-prescribing drugs and the rise of drug-resistant germs,” Cato said.

The researchers suggest that doctors could combat the rise of drug-resistant germs by encouraging vaccination. In fact, studies have shown that the vast majority of infectious diseases seen in college-age patients are viral rather than bacterial infections. Winfield urged students to not push their doctor to give an antibiotic that they do not need. He added that UHS offers many antiviral drugs such as Relenza and Tamiflu that are much more suitable for treatment of influenza than antibiotics.

“It’s hard when you have exams, need help, and want to feel better. But the misuse of antibiotics can sometime cause more harm than good,” he added.

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