I cringe when folks tell me they’ve just gone to the doctor with a cold and stepped out with a shiny new prescription for antibiotics. Usually, it’s the infamous Z-pak.
Despite very clear prescribing guidelines, medical providers continue to irresponsibly over-prescribe antibiotics. And patients continue to irresponsibly demand them. This has led to a worldwide health crisis – antibiotic resistance.
In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) listed antibiotic resistance as one of the top ten threats to global health today.
If this doesn’t scare you, it should.
What is Antibiotic Resistance?
Believe it or not, bacteria are pretty intelligent little bugs. After they are repeatedly exposed to antibiotics, bacteria develop defense mechanisms that prevent them from being killed by antibiotics. When antibiotics can’t do their job (or have a hard time doing it), this is what we call antibiotic resistance.
The overuse of antibiotics in both humans and animals has contributed to this critical issue.
The Dangers of Antibiotic Resistance
Chances are, you’ve heard of the bacterial infection called MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus). MRSA is resistant to several antibiotics including methicillin, amoxicillin, penicillin, and oxacillin. Because of this, it can be really challenging to treat. Around 20,000 Americans die every year from MRSA.
There are a growing number of other infections that are also becoming harder to treat such as pneumonia, gonorrhea, salmonellosis, and tuberculosis. Antibiotics typically used to fight these conditions are less effective. And some don’t work at all.
Dr. Tedros A. Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization tells it like it is: “Antimicrobial resistance is a global health emergency that will seriously jeopardize progress in modern medicine. There is an urgent need for more investment in research and development for antibiotic-resistant infections including TB, otherwise, we will be forced back to a time when people feared common infections and risked their lives from minor surgery.”
Antibiotic Overuse and Misuse
The CDC estimates that around 30% of antibiotics prescribed in the U.S. are unnecessary. That’s 47 million prescriptions written every year that will not help and may even harm.
The U.S. is not alone. Australia has one of the highest rates of antibiotic use in the developed world – around 29 million prescriptions are issued annually (in a country with a population of 24.6 million!). In Canada, around 25 million antibiotics are prescribed every year.
Most antibiotics inappropriately prescribed in an outpatient setting are for viral illnesses such as colds, the flu, bronchitis, and other upper respiratory illnesses. Antibiotics do not work on viruses. I repeat, antibiotics do not work on viruses. Yet despite this knowledge, and clear prescribing guidelines, many providers continue to overuse and misuse antibiotics. And patients continue to ask for them.
Antibiotic Overuse In Children
Overuse of antibiotics in children is especially common leading to an increasing trend of resistance in children. Medical providers prescribe antibiotics at a much higher rate when they think that’s what the parents expect.
Parents should know that antibiotics are not necessary for the majority of illnesses seen in the pediatrician’s office.
Appropriate Use of Antibiotics
There are certainly some illnesses, such as pneumonia and sepsis, that call for the judicious use of antibiotics. And patients who are at a higher risk of developing serious infections may need antibiotics more often than the general public. This includes people with weakened immune systems and those with certain conditions such as end-stage kidney disease or advanced diabetes.
A few other examples of when an antibiotic may be appropriate is if you have strep throat, whooping cough, a prolonged sinus infection or a urinary tract infection.
What You Can Do
- Remember that many illnesses seen in outpatient settings are viral and do not require antibiotics.
- If you do have to take an antibiotic, finish the ENTIRE COURSE even if you’re feeling better after a dose or two. This helps prevent antibiotic resistance.
- Never take someone else’s antibiotic or share yours with other people. This contributes to antibiotic resistance.
- WASH YOUR HANDS! This is the most effective way to prevent the spread of infection.
- Antibiotic resistance is a worldwide threat that we should all be taking very seriously.
- Public health experts fear that we may end up with no antibiotics left to treat serious infections.
- Antibiotics do not work on viruses such as colds or the flu.
I hope this has helped you understand a little more about antibiotics and the dangers of antibiotic resistance.
*The information here is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your medical providers. If you’re sick, talk to your provider about whether or not antibiotics are the right treatment for you.
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