"One of the most urgent threats to the public’s health." What you need to know about antibiotic overuse.
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Antibiotics are critical treatments for many illnesses. But many antibiotics are becoming less effective – even ineffective. Learn what we all can do to help fight antibiotic resistance.
COVID-19 continues to dominate headlines. But there is another serious public health matter that should also rise to the top of our collective conscious: antibiotic resistance.
For decades, we’ve been fortunate enough to live in a world where many bacterial infections can be cured with a short-term round of antibiotic medications. But it wasn’t that long ago that these illnesses were deadly. In fact, antibiotics have been called one of the greatest medical breakthroughs of the 20th century.
But some antibiotics are now less effective than they once were, or worse yet, have lost their effectiveness altogether. The primary reasons? Overuse and misuse, such as using antibiotics when there is no need.
What are antibiotics?
Antibiotics are medications that kill harmful bacteria that make people sick. They are used to treat everything from strep throat to sexually transmitted diseases.
But the bacteria that antibiotics target are living, adaptive organisms. Those sickness-inducing bacteria that aren’t eliminated after a course of antibiotic treatment can survive and pass on their resistance to future generations. Some bacteria go a stealthy step further, conveying resistance to other types of bacteria.
While bacteria are expected to evolve and develop resistance to medication over time, the inappropriate use of antibiotics has sped up this process. How widespread is the problem? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that antibiotic resistance is one of the most urgent threats to the public’s health.
Unfortunately, for far too many of us, taking an antibiotic is on par with taking over-the-counter medications for aches and pains. But this casual approach has serious consequences.
Today, curing some bacterial illnesses requires more rounds of antibiotic medications than in the past. Not only does this mean that people can stay sicker for longer; antibiotics are not particularly discriminatory, so they can weaken or kill all kinds of bacteria in their wake. These include friendly bacteria that live in our systems and help us easily digest food, for example. Thus, the more antibiotics people take, the more they may suffer side effects such as indigestion, diarrhea and other issues.
More worrisome still: Some once-powerful antibiotics have completely lost their effectiveness. According to the CDC, antimicrobial-resistant infections are responsible for at least 2.8 million infections and more than 35,000 deaths in the U.S. every year.
Know what antibiotics do—and don’t—work against
It’s important to educate ourselves about what illnesses antibiotics can treat and how to use them responsibly. According to the CDC, “Antibiotic resistance has been found in every U.S. state and in every country across the globe. There is no safe place from antibiotic resistance, but everyone can take action against it.”
Do antibiotics cure viruses?
No, though this is a common misperception that must be dispelled. Antibiotics fight bacteria but do nothing to cure viruses, which are completely different germs. Viruses include illnesses such as the common cold, seasonal flu, stomach “flu” and COVID-19. Not only are antibiotics ineffective for viral infections, but they can also cause harmful side effects. For example, they can kill good bacteria that help our bodies function properly. Learn the differences between viral and bacterial illnesses.
Is it okay to stop taking prescribed antibiotics once you are feeling better?
No. It’s not unusual to begin feeling better before you end a prescribed course of antibiotics. But you should always take the entire prescription unless your doctor advises otherwise. Otherwise, bacteria will further build up their resistance for the next antibiotic battle.
Should I ask my doctor for antibiotics?
Again, no. Your doctor will carefully assess your symptoms and prescribe the appropriate treatment for your condition.
Enough with the no’s. What can I do to be proactive?
If there is anything positive that continues to come out of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that we are familiar with steps to avoid getting infected by germs:
- Wash your hands/use hand sanitizer often
- Stay away from those who show signs of sickness like coughing and sneezing
- Make sure you and your loved ones are up to date on recommended vaccinations, including the seasonal flu vaccine
- Use the entire antibiotic treatment as prescribed by your doctor—even if you feel better before it’s completed
- Never take someone else’s antibiotic prescription
Antibiotics have saved millions of lives. It’s our collective responsibility to ensure these bacteria-fighting superpowers save countless more by using them responsibly.