Antibiotics have been the first line of defense when it comes to fighting infection and illness for decades.
But their popularity has given rise to bacteria strains that have become resistant to many antibiotics, leading the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) to call it one of the world's most urgent public health problems.
How antibiotic resistance happens
Resistance occurs when an infection no longer responds to the medication designed to treat it. This means that even common infections treated with an antibiotic, such as urinary tract infections, are becoming harder to fight as bacteria adapt and become stronger.
Bacteria develop antibiotic resistance in two ways:
- Through a new genetic change that enables it to survive
- Getting DNA from a bacterium that is already resistant
Taking antibiotics frequently over long periods of time can lead to resistance and cause it to spread.
Consequences of antibiotic misuse
If antibiotic resistance isn’t brought under control, the consequences worldwide include:
Educating consumers about use
Patients and their doctors must take responsibility for combating antibiotic resistance, says UCI Health family physician Dr. Emily Dow.
The problem is twofold: Patients see their physician and expect to be prescribed an antibiotic for their ailment, whether it’s appropriate or not. The physician may then prescribe the antibiotic rather than educate the patient.
“It takes longer to explain why the patient doesn’t need an antibiotic,” Dow says. “It’s easier to just write that prescription.”
She urges physicians to discuss appropriate antibiotic use with their patients, and to educate them when they request an antibiotic that won’t help them.
Don't assume you need an antibiotic
In turn, Dow says, consumers should see the doctor when they are sick, but not assume the treatment will be an antibiotic.
“Have a frank discussion with your doctor. Find out everything you can about your illness, what’s causing it and what you need to do to get better.”
How to use antibiotics safely
Using antibiotics appropriately can help fight the growing global threat of antibiotic resistance, says Dow:
- DO take the entire course of medication. Stopping your medication as soon as you feel better is one way to develop a resistance to the antibiotic, she cautions. The bacteria begin to die off as you take the medication; stopping too soon makes the bacteria return even stronger than before.
- DO take the medication as directed. If the prescription says to take the antibiotic three times a day, take it three times a day. Don’t skip doses.
- DO listen when your primary care physician says you don’t need an antibiotic.
- DON’T share your medication. This can delay appropriate treatment and lead to resistance.
- DON’T save your medication for later. “Some people hold onto medications they didn’t finish. The next time they get sick, they take the leftovers,” says Dow. The medication may not be the right kind to treat the infection, it may have expired or it may not be enough to effectively kill the bacteria.
- DON’T take antibiotics to prevent an infection. Antibiotics do nothing to ward off bacterial diseases. “There are still people out there who say they need an antibiotic because they’re going on a trip and don’t want to get sick,” says Dow. “That’s not the right way to go about treating your illness.”
Antibiotic side effects
Antibiotics are a potent weapon against bacterial infections, but they’re not completely benign to take, Dow says.
Risks associated with taking antibiotics include:
- Unpleasant side effects such as diarrhea, vomiting and nausea
- The development of other infections, such as yeast infections
- Previously unknown allergies to specific antibiotics
When you are prescribed an antibiotic, the benefits often outweigh the risks, says Dow. “When antibiotics are used appropriately, they can save lives.”
When antibiotics are overused or prescribed inappropriately, it leads to resistance. That means that when they are needed later, they may not be strong enough to kill the bacteria, both in the individual and in the larger community.
“That means that stronger and stronger antibiotics need to be developed to kill off the bacteria,” says Dow.