Antibiotics have saved innumerable lives since first being introduced in the 1940s, treating infections and even making procedures, such as surgeries and chemotherapy, safer. However, as bacteria evolve, many have become resistant to antibiotics and their effectiveness is waning.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls antibiotic resistance one of the greatest public health threats of our time, killing at least 1.27 million people worldwide. In the United States, about 3 million antibiotic-resistant infections occur each year, and more than 35,000 people die as a result.
Antibiotic resistance occurs when the germs defeat the antibiotic drugs designed to kill them, making it difficult, sometimes impossible, to treat these infections.
“Antibiotic resistance is an urgent public health threat for adults and children,” says Wade Licup, MD, a family medicine physician with Scripps Coastal Medical Center Vista. “The most important element contributing to this resistance is overuse and misuse of antibiotics — a situation that fortunately can be modified now that there is more understanding and knowledge.”
When a person is infected with an antibiotic-resistant bacterium, not only is treatment of that patient more difficult, but the antibiotic-resistant bacterium may spread to other people.
A primary care physician can help you determine when and if an antibiotic is appropriate for your condition.
Antibiotic overuse or misuse is largely to blame for antibiotic resistance. Resistance is caused by a combination of bacteria exposed to antibiotics and the spread of bacteria that develop a resistance mechanism.
“Antibiotic resistance does not mean our body is resistant to antibiotics. It means the bacteria causing the infection are resistant,” says Dr. Licup.
The CDC estimates about 47 million antibiotic courses are prescribed for infections that don’t need antibiotics.
“We commonly see patients asking for antibiotics to treat colds, coughs or other viral infections,” says Dr. Licup. “Many patients don’t understand that antibiotics don’t work for viruses. Antibiotics should only be used to treat true bacterial infections, such as strep throat, ear infections and pneumonia.”
Everyone can play an important role in preventing antibiotic resistance by following these six guidelines:
Discuss whether an antibiotic is likely to be effective for your illness. Ask what else you can do to relieve your symptoms. Also, never pressure your doctor to prescribe an antibiotic. Dr. Licup warns to take antibiotics only when needed. They won’t help you otherwise and can still cause side effects, including nausea and vomiting.
Using antibiotics to treat viruses, such as a cold, flu or COVID-19, can make them less effective against treating bacterial infections and can increase your risk of developing an antibiotic-resistant infection.
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.
Do not share your antibiotics with others.
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.
Talk to your pharmacist about safely discarding leftover medicines.
Discuss over-the-counter treatment options with your doctor to reduce symptoms. Also, be sure to get enough rest and fluids. Get recommended vaccines, such as the flu vaccine. Keep hands and wounds clean and take good care of chronic conditions.
Gonorrhea, a common sexually transmitted infection (STI), can be resistant to drugs. Practice safe sex and seek treatment right away if you test positive for an STI.