Antibiotics have been one of the most profound advances in medicine since their mainstream introduction and availability in the 1940s. They eliminated the need for many isolation rooms and completely changed the prognosis of common bacterial infections. However with bacterial morphology and improper use, many bugs have become resistant to the antibiotics that previously treated them. Advances continue to be made, but they aren’t keeping pace with the evolution of antibiotic resistance.
What is antibiotic resistance?
Improper use of antibiotics is widely responsible for the growing number of antibiotic-resistant organisms worldwide.
Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria morphs in a way that makes it able to resist an antibiotic that previously was effective in killing it. When bacteria are exposed to antibiotics, it only takes one bacterium to develop resistance to the antibiotic for the bacteria to become resistant. That one resistant bacterium can then multiply to a dangerous level. The more an antibiotic is taken, the more likely an organism is able to become resistant to that antibiotic. This means that organisms that were previously easily treatable are now becoming dangerous infections leading to significant morbidity as they become difficult to treat and can easily spread to others.
Appropriate antibiotic use
Antibiotics treat bacterial infections but aren’t effective in treating ailments caused by viruses (e.g., runny noses, colds, flu, most upper respiratory infections, laryngitis, most sore throats, and many sinus and ear infections). Most infections children get are caused by viruses. Taking an antibiotic when it isn’t necessary, such as when the causative organism is likely to be viral, contributes to an increased risk of getting an antibiotic resistant infection later.
Antibiotics also are one of the most common drugs to cause side effects and taking them when not necessary could lead to unnecessary adverse events. In addition, antibiotics can also unfortunately kill off good, protective bacteria in places like the gut. When protective bacteria are disturbed by antibiotics, harmful bacteria previously kept in check (like clostridium difficile aka C. diff) can takeover and cause diarrheal symptoms.
What you can do
It’s important to recognize that patients, as well as health care providers, need to work together to combat the formation of antibiotic resistant organisms. You can help fight antibiotic resistance by:
- Taking antibiotics only as prescribed for bacterial infections.
- Finishing the entire antibiotic unless directed by your physician otherwise.
- Not saving leftover antibiotics or taking antibiotics without a prescription.
- Not pressuring your physician to prescribe an antibiotic.
- Staying up-to-date on vaccines, which can prevent bacterial illness.
- Checking with your physician to see if there are options other than taking an antibiotic.
It’s tough to imagine the days without antibiotics but if resistance continues, we may find ourselves reliving history. Take a stand this week and going forward to stop the formation of antibiotic resistant organisms. Through knowledge, proper antibiotic use, and prevention of infection through vaccines, it’s possible to make a difference with respect to this growing public health concern.
– Melissa Rettmann, M.S., PA-C, has a background in pediatrics and allergy. She is the mother of a toddler and a newborn and volunteers with the Parenting Program.