Patients' stories

I Didn’t Know That Antibiotics Shouldn’t Always be Used to Treat Bronchitis

I Didn’t Know That Antibiotics Shouldn’t Always be Used to Treat Bronchitis

I have asthma, so over the years, I’ve had a tendency to get bronchitis two to three times per year. Whenever it got bad enough, I was prescribed antibiotics. I recall being told that there was a danger of the bronchitis turning into pneumonia, so I was only too happy to take the antibiotics.

In 2015, I had bronchitis three times. The first time, the antibiotics that I usually used, including the Z-Pak, didn’t work for me, so I was prescribed a stronger antibiotic called Doxycycline. The third time, after seven days on Doxycycline, I still wasn’t feeling better. In fact, I was feeling worse and had a fever.

Since it was a Sunday, I called the on-call doctor who suggested an even stronger antibiotic, called Levaquin. I didn’t think twice about it; I was sick, I had a business trip coming up that I didn’t want to cancel, and I just wanted to feel better. When the doctor said that I’d feel better in a couple of days, I went to the pharmacy right away to get it filled. Who doesn’t want to feel better?

The new antibiotic came with about six pages of warnings, all of which I tossed out. I started taking the Levaquin, and after a couple of days, I did feel better. It was like manna from heaven. But on the third day I started getting horrible, painful blisters on my legs. The next day I had even more blisters, all over my body. I went to see my doctor who counted 40 of them and diagnosed me with Stevens-Johnson syndrome. I was advised that my condition would likely get much worse and that I was not to look it up online. When you hear that, you know it’s bad – and, of course, you look it up. It was all a reaction to the Levaquin – the antibiotic that was supposed to help me.

As the doctor had predicted, I had to go to the hospital within a few days. The emergency room doctor thought that I was in anaphylactic shock and quickly consulted with other doctors. The rash was severe and my condition was so critical that they considered sending me to the burn unit at another hospital. I was dehydrated, had a high fever, and had never been so sick in my life.

I haven’t been on antibiotics since then, and I’ll need to be very sick before I use them again. I have since learned that antibiotics have been overprescribed for years. If you become resistant to them and need them later in life, like if you get cancer and have a weak immune system, they may not work for you then. I became concerned that this might happen to me, and don’t want to take that risk.

In retrospect, I should have questioned why I needed a stronger antibiotic, how I got one prescribed over the phone without being seen, and why the other one that had worked for me for years wasn’t working any longer, but I didn’t know anything about antibiotic resistance. I didn’t know that antibiotics shouldn’t always be used to treat bronchitis. I have since been successfully treated for bronchitis, under the care of a pulmonary specialist, by using inhalers and steroids rather than antibiotics.

Now, I caution people to ask their doctor whether antibiotics and other medicines or treatments are really needed, what the risks are, and if there are other options. I don’t want anyone else to have to go through what happened to me.

Mary H., New York

Poster: Five Questions to Ask Your Doctor Before You Take Antibiotics

Brochure: Antibiotics for Respiratory Illness in Adults

In depth: Antibiotics: Do They Help or Do They Harm?