In my last blog post, I talked about traveling to the United States with amoxicillin, acetaminophen, and antihistamines sent by family members living in El Salvador.  There are many logical reasons these medications are requested by Salvadorans living in the USA.  Amoxicillin in particular carries some risks that are important to understand.

I had a chance to interview a colleague, Dr. Hope Ferdowsian, about the risks associated with taking amoxicillin when it is not prescribed by a doctor.  Dr. Hope is a physician and advocate who works with Physicians for Human Rights, and she is the author of an upcoming book Seeking Sanctuary: A Doctor’s Search for Hope Amid Despair.

MIKE: Dr. Hope, thank you for taking the time to provide some clarification on amoxicillin.  Let me jump right to it.  If someone has the flu, will amoxicillin help?

DR. HOPE: Simply put, no. The flu (also called “seasonal influenza”) is a viral illness. Influenza and other viral illnesses (sometimes referred to as “colds”) do not respond to antibiotics like amoxicillin.

MIKE: What are the risks of taking amoxicillin when it is not prescribed by a doctor?

DR. HOPE: Amoxicillin, like other antibiotics, can have mild to severe side effects. The list of potential side effects is long, as with many other drugs. Side effects can include an allergic reaction, swelling of the mouth, breathing difficulties, hives, rash, blisters, and other skin changes, which can all be severe and life-threatening.

People can also experience nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain or cramping, and diarrhea. Sometimes people can develop a severe form of infectious diarrhea.

Amoxicillin can also affect the kidneys, liver, nervous system, and blood cells.

MIKE: Can you explain the risks of developing antibiotic resistance?

DR. HOPE: Antibiotic resistance is a big problem. Antibiotics can become ineffective for treating diseases they are meant to treat. Bacteria become resistant to antibiotics and continue to multiply and spread infection even in the presence of therapeutic levels of antibiotics. The risk for antibiotic resistance increases when people use antibiotics inappropriately, such as when there isn’t a clear indication for their use.

MIKE: Why is it important to consult a doctor before purchasing antibiotics for family members who are sick?

DR. HOPE: A doctor should evaluate the family member who is sick to determine an accurate diagnosis and the best form of treatment. A doctor can assess the patient’s risk for these side effects and make an expert decision about whether amoxicillin is an appropriate treatment regimen. Then s/he can discuss the benefits and risks of the medication with the patient and discuss an appropriate plan for treatment and follow-up.

MIKE: If my throat is sore and I’m not going to go to the doctor in the United States, what are the names of some medications I could purchase to treat the symptoms of a sore throat?

DR. HOPE: If you are concerned enough to take a medication, it is best to consult with a doctor, particularly if your symptoms aren’t responding to hydration or rest, or if the symptoms are severe or prolonged.

There are some over-the-counter medications in the United States that are indicated for treating a sore throat. These include analgesics like acetaminophen and ibuprofen and over-the-counter lozenges and sprays, but these can also have side effects so it’s important to check the labels and instructions on the medications and to consult your doctor with any questions.

MIKE: What about the flu?

DR. HOPE: Again, a doctor should really assess your symptoms if you are concerned enough to take a medication, particularly since there are specific medications to treat influenza that your doctor can prescribe. A doctor can provide an accurate diagnosis and suggest the best treatment plan.

MIKE: Let’s say I’m really sick, and I’m living in the United States without any sort of legal documentation.  Will a doctor turn me in to the authorities if I seek help from a clinic?

DR. HOPE: There are many clinics in the United States that provide health care for people without legal documentation of citizenship, and doctors at most clinics and hospitals in the United States understand they have a moral obligation to treat patients, regardless of their backgrounds.

Though the laws in each state are different, a physician cannot, in most circumstances, report someone to the federal government or any other authority without violating patient confidentiality.

Some people without legal documentation may qualify for health insurance in some places in the United States, such as in Washington, DC. California Governor Jerry Brown just signed a bill into law allowing immigrants without documentation to buy health insurance on a state exchange created under the U.S. Affordable Care Act. It will be the first state in the country to offer that kind of coverage, if the federal government approves it.

It’s important to know that there are many resources, including health care resources, for immigrants without documentation. And, under federal law, immigrants without documentation are eligible for emergency medical care.

You can follow Dr. Hope on Facebook or her blog.

Click here for a Spanish language version of this interview.

The medical information on this site is provided as an information resource only, and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes. This information is not intended to be patient education, does not create any patient-physician relationship, and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment.  Please consult a health care provider before making any healthcare decisions or for guidance about a specific medical condition.