Why Antibiotics Won’t Get Rid Of Your Sore Throat
Sore throats are something that affects millions of people every year. Sore throats, colds, runny noses and all the rest of it are among the most common medical conditions that we suffer from as a race. So it seems strange the science still hasn’t come up with a cure. How great would it be if you could pop a pill to get rid of your cold? Think of the productivity and happiness benefits?
It gets even weirder when you consider what science can do. For instance, medicine can knock you out, so you don’t feel any pain and reengineer your body’s cell’s to kill cancer. The common cold, however, remains.
The fundamental problem with the common cold is that it is a virus. Viruses are very different from bacteria. Viruses are alive in some senses, but they cannot survive by themselves. They have to live inside other cells to divide, multiply, and replicate. Viruses are the smallest life-like things we know about and have been around since the dawn of life billions of years ago.
Why Antibiotics Don’t Work Against Viruses
Antibiotics work by targeting specific receptors on the surface of bacteria and either preventing the bacteria from multiplying or killing them outright. The problem is that viruses don’t have any receptors or “targets” on their surface. They live inside other cells, so antibiotics have nothing to attack them with. Antibiotics are chemicals which work well killing at the cellular level; they don’t do so well at scales smaller than that.
When you think about it, it doesn’t make much sense that antibiotics could kill viruses living in cells in your body. The antibiotic would have to be able to interrupt the replicating machinery of the virus, which is nothing like that of bacteria. Sure, you can throw a spanner in the works and watch regular machines splutter, clunks and break down, but you can’t do the same with life. It’s doesn’t work that way.
Most Viruses Are “Self-Limiting”
Viral infections tend to be self-limiting. While medical science doesn’t have a cure for the common cold, your body’s immune system does. Once it detects a viral infection, it mobilises to get rid of it, making life as hostile for the disease as possible, eventually eliminating it. The common cold only lasts longer than about ten days in people who have compromised immune systems.
The main issue with viruses is secondary bacterial infection. Viruses can temporarily or permanently weaken your immune system, making you more susceptible to dangerous bacterial infection. Your doctor, therefore, could prescribe you antibiotics if you have a virus to protect you against possible bacterial infection which could worsen your symptoms.
Is There Anything That Can Be Done About Viruses?
Modern medicine isn’t utterly impotent in the fight against viruses. Antiviral treatments are available. However, the way these treatments work is different from antibiotics. Often, antiviral medications are only beneficial if you give them in the first 24 hours of an infection, so you need to act fast. What’s more, there aren’t any commonly prescribed antivirals for a cold. You’ll just have to put up with it, take pain killers and supplements, and wait for it to get better.
What happens if you do take an antibiotic when you have a cold? Pretty much nothing. Unless you have a secondary bacterial infection, you won’t feel any better, and you could feel a heck of a lot worse. Remember, antibiotics not only kill infectious bacteria but many of the bacteria that they come into contact with. Your body relies on gut bacteria for healthy function. Without these bacteria, it can’t manufacturer certain compounds that it needs to keep you healthy. Taking antibiotics kills off some of these beneficial critters and can leave you feeling rough.
It’s worth pointing out that viruses do not cause all sore throats. Some are the result of bacteria. Dangerous bacteria.
Strep throat, for instance, is a bacterial infection. The pathogen that causes it attacks the lining of the throat and initiates an immune response. Strep, unfortunately, has evolved to beat our body’s defences and can lurk in tissues forever. What’s more, it can get into the heart tissue and cause scarring as your body tries to fight it off. This scarring can lead to rheumatic heart failure – a life-threatening disease.
So, in summary, we’ve learned that antibiotics don’t work against viruses because viruses operate via entirely different mechanisms to bacteria. If you try to treat a cold with antibiotics, you’re wasting your time and money, and you could feel worse overall.