This article was substantially update in December 2014. Here is a link to 9 Simple Tips to Prevent Antibiotic Resistance.
Sometimes I am all ears. And now, with the cold and flu season upon us, what I am hearing is that folks around town are asking their doctors for a “just in case” prescription for antibiotics. And my knee jerk reaction is: Just in Case of What?
It seems to me that these days, the slightest sniffle sends parents, their kids, and even knowledgeable adults to the nearest clinic to pick up a dose of these once-upon-a-time miracle drugs. And clearly, antibiotic drugs can save lives. But something quite deadly has happened along the highway to miracles: Antibiotic Resistance.
Today I offer a basic, layman’s primer on antibiotic resistance. No preaching, no panic, just some general, information to make you think and to make you evaluate your own actions the next time you get a sniffle.
How does it happen?
Antibiotics normally work by killing germs such as bacteria. Or, if they do not kill the bacteria, they severely retard the bacteria from growing. They are also used as an effective medicine to fight or prevent infections caused by certain parasites and some types of fungus.
But sometimes things go wrong and not all of these bad boys are not stopped or killed. Alas, sometimes the strongest ones are left to grow and spread. When this happens, the person being treated can get sick again. And this second time around, the germs become harder to kill.
This becomes a never ending cycle since the more often a person uses a particular antibiotic, the more likely it is that the bacteria will resist it. And at the end of the day? The illness or disease becomes difficult to control, keeping you sick for a longer period and requiring stronger and stronger drugs. Plus guess what? The stronger the drug, the more costly the drug as well.
And then there are viruses
Now here is the tricky part. Germs come in two major flavors: bacteria, as mentioned above, and viruses. Antibiotics, used sparingly and only when medically dictated, can be effective in killing and stopping bacteria but they they are ineffective and do not work in treating viruses.
Repeat after me: Antibiotics do not have any effect on viruses.
Just to refresh what you may already know, viruses are the typical culprit in the following maladies:
- Sore throats
- Sinus problems
- Ear infections
Why is this important? Because in taking an antibiotic for one of these ills, you are increasing the chance of making yourself antibiotic resistant. Besides, they won’t work and might even harm you since each time you take one, you add to the chances that bacteria in your body will be able to resist them. Not a good idea.
Why does antibiotic resistance happen?
Good question and fairly easy to answer. Patients ask for antibiotics they don’t need. For example, they ask for antibiotics to treat a cold. And doctors, whether too busy, too lazy, or simply worn out by the system, give in to the patients request.
Another thing that happens is that after securing the prescription, patients do not take antibiotics in the manner prescribed. For example, they stop taking the drug before all the pills are used. Think abut it. The weakest germs (bacteria) get killed right off but the drug is discontinued before the the strongest germs are eliminated. Stop the drug and these strong germs continue to grow. And mutate and grow some more.
Adding to the problem, some folks hoard the antibiotics so they have them available the next time a sniffle or cough or sore throat occurs.
The worrisome part of this is that if you take antibiotics that cannot fight the bacteria they are supposed to kill, your infection can last longer. Instead of getting better, your infection may get worse. This will result in multiple visits to the doctor or clinic and an eventual Russian roulette of drug treatments to finally knock out the germs. Worst case, you may end up in the hospital in order to have an even stronger antibiotic administered intravenously.
While all of this is going on , family members, co-workers and others you come into contact with will be exposed to the same resistant bacteria you have. And so the cycle continues.
What should I do?
Here are some tips for helping insure that you do not promote antibiotic resistance in your own body.
- Do not ask for or demand an antibiotic when your doctor says you don’t need it.
- Don’t take an antibiotic for a virus (cold, cough, or flu).
- Take your medicine exactly the way it was prescribed. Finish the complete dosage and do not skip doses. Yes, you may feel better but that does not mean you are cured.
- Ask questions. If a doctor prescribes an antibiotic – or any drug for that matter – ask what it is and why he or she is prescribing that particular medication. If you don’t understand the answer, say so and do not leave until you are satisfied.
- Also talk to your pharmacist about drug interactions, and recommended food to eat (or not eat) along with the drug. Also discuss common side effects since many antibiotics have annoying side effects including dizziness and gastrointestinal distress. This is not the time to be bashful.
- Don’t take leftover medicine. (And what are you doing with leftover medicine to begin with?)
- Don’t take someone else’s medicine.
- Practice healthy hygiene. Wash your hands with soap and water before you eat and after you use the bathroom. Try your best to keep your hands away from your face and mouth after being exposed to anyone that is sick or showing symptoms of illness.
The Final Word
Another issue, while not an explicit topic of this article, is the use of antibiotics in our food stock. Did you know that it has been estimated that eighty percent of antibiotics sold in the U.S. are given to food animals? Furthermore, the drugs are often given non-therapeutically to promote growth and to compensate for the effects of unsanitary and overcrowded conditions.
Many of the antibiotics used in food animal production are similar or identical to the antibiotic drugs used in human medicine to cure serious diseases. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, because these classes of antibiotics are similar, bacteria resistant to antibiotics used in animals also will be resistant to antibiotics used in humans.
I am not a health industry professional but I can connect the dots and this concerns me. I suspect that if bacteria become resistant to antibiotics, and it is spread by the handling or eating contaminated meat or produce fertilized by contaminated manure, we are all at risk.
My hope is that with good hygiene and the sensible use of antibiotic drugs, we can mitigate the risk and live a healthy life.
Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!
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