Have we overdone it with antibiotics?
Q: I’ve heard about increasing antibiotic resistance in bacteria. How does this happen, and how can we protect ourselves?
A: Antibiotics are powerful drugs that work with the body’s immune system to protect us against harmful bacteria. But misusing antibiotics has increased the development of resistant bacteria that are often more difficult to kill, causing illnesses that are no longer easily treatable. The development of new antibiotics is slow and costly.
Bacteria, like all living organisms, survive by adapting to their environment. Most important to humans is the ability of bacteria to develop resistance to antibiotics designed to kill them. Bacteria can physically change to resist antibiotics or even destroy an antibiotic. Some have been found to be resistant to nearly all antibiotics. To make the problem more complicated, some resistant bacteria can transfer DNA to other bacteria, thereby helping them resist antibiotics.
The most important way to control the spread of antibiotic resistance is the smart use of antibiotics. Overuse and misuse of antibiotics can promote the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Every time a person takes antibiotics, sensitive bacteria (bacteria that antibiotics can still attack) are killed, but resistant bacteria are left to grow and multiply. If even one bacterium becomes resistant to antibiotics, it can then multiply. This is how repeated use of antibiotics can increase the number of drug-resistant bacteria.
Protection against the consequences of antibiotic resistance is both an individual and community responsibility. Decreasing the need for antibiotics is the first step in preventing resistance. An essential part of preventing the spread of infection in the community and at home is proper hygiene. This includes hand-washing and cleaning shared items and surfaces.
Physicians are working to prescribe less and to use the exact antibiotic needed. Never pressure your healthcare provider to prescribe an antibiotic. Remember, antibiotics do not kill viruses.
If you are prescribed an antibiotic:
- Take as directed.
- Don’t skip doses or stop taking, even if you start feeling better.
- Talk to your physician if you feel you are having an adverse reaction.
- Don’t save antibiotics for the “next time” or give to someone else.