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A Patient's Guide to Infections

Author: Dr. Davie Wong - Infectious Diseases  

1) What Infection Do I Have?

Infections can be caused by viruses, bacteria, fungi or parasites. If your doctor suspects an infection, he or she may order tests to investigate. Sometimes, diseases are not diagnosed correctly, resulting in inappropriate treatments. It is essential for your doctor to have reasonable confidence that you have an infection before prescribing a treatment plan.

2) Do I Need Any Special Tests?

Some infections can be diagnosed based on your symptoms and physical examination findings. Other infections may require further testing such as blood work, urine or stool samples, or imaging (x-rays) to establish a diagnosis. Always ask if you really need a test because some tests are not required and the results can cause unnecessary anxiety to patients, which may lead to further unnecessary investigations that are sometimes invasive. More tests do not mean better care. No test is perfect, and each test carries benefits and harms.

3) Do I Need Antibiotics?

Many infections, such as viral infections, do not require antibiotics because they work only against bacteria. Antibiotics can be beneficial or harmful, depending on how they are used. Up to 30% of outpatient antibiotic prescriptions are unnecessary. This results in unnecessary costs to the patient, exposure to harmful side effects of the antibiotic, and antibiotic resistance. If you do not have an infection, then antibiotics are not needed. Do not take leftover antibiotics from a previous prescription without consulting your doctor first. Do not pressure your doctor for antibiotics and always ask if you really need them.

4) How Long Should I Take Antibiotics?

This depends on the type and severity of your infection, your overall health status, and how quickly you respond to the prescribed treatment. Antibiotic therapies can last from a few days to several weeks, depending on your condition. Antibiotic prescriptions are often longer than necessary. Taking more antibiotics than what you need does not improve your health and can actually harm you.

5) Why Is Antibiotic Not Working?

For some infections, you may not notice improvement until after the first 24 to 48 hours of starting the antibiotic. Try not to switch antibiotics too early, unless there is significant worsening of your condition, or your diagnosis has changed. If there is no improvement after 48 hours, then you should ask your doctor if you are taking the wrong antibiotic, if there is a complication related to your infection, or if the diagnosis is incorrect. It is important always to have your doctor re-evaluate your diagnosis if the treatment is not working, rather than trying multiple different antibiotics. This approach will lead to timely investigations and proper treatment for your condition.

6) What If I Have an Antibiotic Allergy?

The most common antibiotic allergy is Penicillin. Approximately 10% of the population reports an allergy to Penicillin, but only 1% are truly allergic. Over 90% of patients who think they are allergic to Penicillin are actually not. Penicillin antibiotics are often the most effective, safest, and inexpensive antibiotics compared to the alternatives. Alternative antibiotics can be less effective, more toxic, and more expensive. Discuss with your doctor if you can try Penicillin again because you are likely not allergic. For other antibiotic allergies, talk to your doctor about other options.

Last reviewed at: 11.Feb.2019



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