Potential Hazards of Taking Antibiotics

How lifesaving drugs can have deadly effects when misused

Antibiotic resistance is posing a major threat to public health around the world. Doctors and hospitals are now dealing with multidrug resistant infectious disease organisms that are either difficult — or impossible — to treat.

In the United States, a new superbug, Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, is the most recent menace — particularly among hospitalized patients with compromised immune systems or whose care requires devices like ventilators and catheters. This strain of bacteria is resistant to almost all available antibiotics, and it kills half of the patients it infects. Long courses of certain types of antibiotics increase a person’s risk of getting CRE, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Another strain of bacteria, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA), was once only a threat to hospitalized patients. But in recent years, it has evolved into a new form that causes infection in healthy people. Community-acquired MRSA can be easily spread from person-to-person through contact at places like schools, gyms and daycare centers.

Antibiotic resistance caused by misuse or overuse

Antibiotic overuse or misuse is largely to blame for the emerging superbugs in our hospitals and communities. While antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections, certain fungal infections and some types of parasites, they are frequently prescribed improperly for other ailments.

“We commonly see in the outpatient setting that patients have become used to getting antibiotics to treat colds, coughs or other viral infections,” says Adina Smarandache, MD, an internal medicine physician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center. “Many patients don’t understand that antibiotics don’t work for these health conditions.”

As a result, many infectious diseases that now respond to antibiotics could become uncontrollable and spread globally, as strains of bacteria in the human body become drug resistant from over exposure to antibiotics. Already, antibiotics are losing their effectiveness against some common ailments, such as bladder infections, strep throat, ear infections and pneumonia.

How to prevent antibiotic resistance

Everyone can play an important role in preventing antibiotic resistance by following these five guidelines:

1. Talk to your doctor.
If prescribed an antibiotic, find out whether it’s likely to work for your illness. Don’t be afraid to ask your doctor if there’s something else you can take. Dr. Smarandache warns that antibiotics can cause numerous side effects, including abdominal discomfort, nausea, vomiting and other serious complications. In fact, in children, antibiotics are the most common cause of emergency department visits for adverse drug events, according to the CDC.

2. Don’t take antibiotics to treat a virus.
Using antibiotics to treat viruses, such as a cold, flu or bronchitis, can make them less effective against treating bacterial infections and can increase your risk of developing an antibiotic-resistant infection.

3. Follow your antibiotic prescription exactly as prescribed.
Do not skip doses. Complete the prescribed treatment even if you begin feeling better. If treatment stops too soon, some bacteria may survive and re-infect you — and they may have developed drug resistance.

4. Don’t save your antibiotic for the next time you get sick.
This may be tempting, but the leftover antibiotic may not be appropriate for your illness. If your ailment is caused by a bacterial infection, you are probably not going to have enough pills to fight the bug. This can also increase your risk of antibiotic resistance.

5. Consider non-antibiotic alternatives.
Discuss over-the-counter treatment options with your doctor to reduce symptoms. Also, be sure to get enough rest and fluids.

Find a primary care physician

A primary care physician can help you determine when and if an antibiotic is appropriate for your condition. Call 1-800-SCRIPPS (1-800-727-4777) if you need help finding a physician who’s right for you.

Get a regular dose of health news and information from Scripps

Sign up to have health-related information from Scripps delivered to your inbox, including our monthly email newsletter. Designed to help you and your family get healthy and stay well, the publication contains timely and relevant consumer health news along with notices about classes, events and exclusive offers.