The HSE has launched a series of videos aimed at increasing people's knowledge of antibiotics, superbugs and preventing infections.
As part of European Antibiotic Awareness Day (November 18), it is highlighting the fact that these drugs are "priceless for serious bacterial infections", but they do not work for colds and flu, which are caused by viruses.
The overuse of antibiotics in recent years has led to more and more cases of antibiotic resistance, which is now a major public health problem. This is why antibiotics should only be used when appropriate, and directions for use should be followed exactly.
"When properly used, antibiotics have been wonder drugs. In the last century, they were called 'magic bullets'. In very sick patients, antibiotics like penicillin were like magic. Before we had antibiotics, a simple blood infection was often the cause of death.
"When we prescribe antibiotics, we have to use them carefully to get the most benefit for people who need them, while protecting people who do not need them from side-effects and from antibiotic resistance," explained consultant microbiologist and HSE national lead for antibiotic resistance, Prof Martin Cormican.
Side-effects caused by antibiotics include diarrhoea, skin rashes and thrush. If you take antibiotics when you don't need them, you risk experiencing these side-effects for nothing.
Antibiotics can also interfere with other medicines, such as tablets that thin the blood or lower cholesterol, so it is essential that you always check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking them.
"Antibiotics are not effective for the treatment of viruses - they only kill bacteria. Most patients coming to see their GP with symptoms of infection such as temperature, coughs, sore throat, earache, stuffy noses, sinus symptoms, flu, aches and pains, rashes, vomiting and diarrhoea have viral, not bacterial, infections," explained Dr Nuala O'Connor, lead advisor on antibiotic resistance with the Irish College of General Practitioners.
She emphaised that these drugs will "do nothing" to help the symptoms of a viral infection.
"They will not make you feel better, they will not reduce a fever, they will not relieve a cough, they will not relieve pain. One in 10 patients will have a side-effect such as nausea, stomach upset and in some cases serious illness from taking an antibiotic.
"Your own immune system can fight viruses if you give it a chance. Rest, take plenty of fluids and use paracetamol or ibuprofen to treat fever and pain symptoms. Both GPs and patients need to be constantly aware that antibiotics are a valuable resource and should only be used appropriately," Dr O'Connor said.
The HSE videos can be viewed here. For advice on how to deal with common illnesses, such as colds, flu, sore throats and earaches, click on www.undertheweather.ie.
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