Antibiotics work against viruses

Antiviral antibioticsThe post title will annoy scientists and physicians, but will simply confirm what lay people believe to be true. It’s why the public tends to demand antibiotics for viral infections.  And that’s why health organizations like the CDC should abandon the term in favor of clarity.

If you search Google for the “definition of antibiotic,” the majority of definitions on the first page will return the lay definition, that antibiotics are effective against microorganisms.  Google provides the first definition like that, in fact, which is probably the result 99% of the searchers use. If you want to read a good overview of how various dictionaries and world health groups define “antibiotic,” please see this document (pdf) by the European Union’s Heads of Medicines Agencies. Medical organizations are confused, too.

Google Trends search for antibiotics definitionTo further gauge public confusion over what “antibiotics” actually means, it’s useful to look at Google Trends.  People search for the definition of antibiotics (blue line in graph at right; click image to open in a new window) far more than for meanings of “antibacterials” and “antivirals.” As stated above, these people will be led to definitions saying that antibiotics kill a broad range of microbes (viruses are microbes). And then they march off the doctor to demand the wonder drug that kills all microbes. And, often, the doctor complies just to get rid of them (the patient, that is).

If you have been following my blog, you know where this is going: public outreach campaigns should never, ever use the word “antibiotic”.  This directive is because “antibiotic” used to mean “kills microorganisms”,  and the roots of the word (antibiotic) suggest the original meaning of the word — together, that’s why people think antibiotics will kill viruses. “Antibiotics” is thus a misnomer — in fact, I think it is probably one of the best examples of a misnomer out there (perhaps pencil lead is a competitor).  If your organization truly wants to reduce over-prescription of antibacterials, deleting “antibiotics” from all your outreach efforts (talks, YouTube clips, websites, PDFs, Twitter posts, etc.) will likely be the most important thing your organization could ever do. Really. The question is thus: is reducing over-prescription a true goal, or do you really like the word, “antibiotic,” too much to part with it?

By the way, here are 6 of my past posts with the gruesome details:

  1. Curbing the misuse of antibiotics (page)
  2. How to improve Antibiotic Awareness Week
  3. The Walking Dead need antivirals, not antibacterials
  4. Antibacterial soap
  5. Venn guide to pills that kill things
  6. Seasonal plea for informed antibiotic usage

And below is a slide about Google definitions, just in case you’re giving a talk for Antibiotic Awareness Week (November 18 – 24). Yes, I cringe that they even call it by that name.

Definitions of antibiotic and antibacterial

About Colin Purrington

PhD in evolutionary biology • twitterinstagram
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2 Responses to Antibiotics work against viruses

  1. Hmm. I have never thought of viruses as being microbes – when did they start being so classed? IMO a microbe has to be capable of independent life. And there are antibiotics that target fungi, so “antibacterial” doesn’t work for them. Then also you have antibiotics that are specific to certain classes of bacteria, are we going to educate the public about them too.

    • I think I was taught that viruses weren’t alive … but don’t recall being told they were/weren’t microbes. I checked a whole bunch of textbooks, and most seem to cram viruses in with microbes these days. Not sure if there is a World Microbiology Court where these things are decided, but I’ll adjust if I find out more. Re the antifungal antibiotics … I totally agree. I’ve read hundreds of papers on the topic, and scientists and physicians routinely lapse into definitions of antibiotics that stretches the normal “antibacterial” role. It’s a mess.

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