Are antibiotics overused? The drug-resistant superbug challenge
Are antibiotics overused?
Antibiotics are often used to treat the common cold, flu or certain types of infections. But they don’t always work. Frustrating, right?
When you’re not feeling well or think you have an infection, you want to clear up the problem as soon as possible, right?
So you visit the doctor.
“What’s going on?” your doctor asks.
- There’s a series of exams: Heart rate, temperature, blood pressure, breathing, vision, etc.
- You describe your symptoms
- Based on the results, your doctor may order additional tests to find out if you have a virus or bacterial infection that can be treated with antibiotics.
It happens a lot. Did you know an estimated 211 million prescriptions for antibiotics are written every year?1
Ever wonder how prescribing antibiotics works, when you should take them, and what to be aware of?
In this article you’ll learn about:
- What antibiotics are typically prescribed for
- Strains of bacteria resistant to antibiotics called superbugs
- What happens when you take antibiotics for a viral infection
- Antibiotics and how to slow the spread of drug-resistant bacteria
- The evolution of a superbug from minor issue to public health problem
- The trouble with prescribing antibiotics
- 5 steps to block harmful bacteria
What antibiotics are typically prescribed for
Antibiotics are among the most commonly prescribed drugs for people. They’re also given to animals to prevent disease and promote growth. Antibiotics are effective against bacterial infections, such as:2
- Strep throat
- Whooping cough
- Urinary tract infections
- And many other types of bacterial infections
But these drugs don’t work at all against viruses, such as those that cause colds or flu.
Superbugs: Strains of bacteria resistant to antibiotics
Superbugs are strains of bacteria that are resistant to several types of antibiotics. Drug-resistant forms of tuberculosis, gonorrhea, and staph infections are just a few of the dangers we now face.3
- Drug-resistant bacteria by the numbers. Each year these drug-resistant bacteria infect more than 2.8 million people nationwide and kill at least 35,000.4
What happens when you take antibiotics for a viral infection
Unfortunately, antibiotics prescribed to people and to animals can end up being unnecessary. And the overuse and misuse of antibiotics helps to create drug-resistant bacteria.
Here’s how that might happen…
- When used properly, antibiotics can help destroy disease-causing bacteria.
- But if you take an antibiotic when you have a viral infection like the flu, the drug won’t affect the viruses making you sick.
- Instead, it’ll destroy a wide variety of bacteria in your body, including some of the “good” bacteria that help you digest food, fight infection, and stay healthy.
And that’s a problem. Bacteria that are tough enough to survive the drug will have a chance to grow and quickly multiply.5
Here’s what happens next:
- Strain spreads. These drug-resistant strains may even spread to other people.
- Drug-resistance increases. Over time, if more and more people take antibiotics when not necessary, drug-resistant bacteria can continue to thrive and spread.
- Bacteria share traits. They may even share their drug-resistant traits with other bacteria.
- Drugs may become less effective or not work at all against certain disease-causing bacteria.
Bacterial infections that were treatable for decades are no longer responding to antibiotics, even the newer ones, according to a recent study.4
Scientists have been trying to keep ahead of newly emerging drug-resistant bacteria by developing new drugs, but the rise of superbugs keeps growing.
Antibiotics & how to slow the spread of drug-resistant bacteria
You can help slow the spread of drug-resistant bacteria by taking antibiotics properly and only when needed. Don’t insist on an antibiotic if your healthcare provider advises otherwise.
- For example, many parents expect doctors to prescribe antibiotics for a child’s ear infection. But experts recommend delaying for a time in certain situations, as many ear infections get better without antibiotics.6
To reduce the spread of drug-resistant bacteria, health experts recommend only prescribing antibiotics when necessary.
The evolution of a superbug from minor issue to public health problem
In the past, some of the most dangerous superbugs have been confined to health care settings. Why? People who are sick or in a weakened state are more susceptible to picking up infections.
But superbug infections aren’t limited to hospitals. Some strains are out in the community and anyone, even healthy people, can become infected.
One common superbug increasingly seen outside hospitals is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).7
- These bacteria don’t respond to methicillin and related antibiotics.
- MRSA can cause skin infections and, in more serious cases, pneumonia or bloodstream infections.
- A MRSA skin infection can appear as one or more pimples or boils that are swollen, painful, or hot to the touch.
- The infection can spread through even a tiny cut or scrape that comes into contact with these bacteria.
Many people recover from MRSA infections, but some cases can be life-threatening. During the last seven years, an estimated 323,700 MRSA cases have been reported, and 10,600 have died from the drug-resistant bacteria.8
The trouble with prescribing antibiotics
When antibiotics are needed, doctors usually prescribe a mild one before trying something more aggressive like vancomycin or metronidazole.9
- Such newer antibiotics can be more toxic and more expensive than older ones.
- Eventually, bacteria will develop resistance to even the new drugs.
- In recent years, some superbugs, such as vancomycin-resistant Enterococci bacteria, remain unaffected by even this antibiotic of last resort.
Antibiotics have been an effective way to treat bacterial infections for decades. However, the number of drug-resistant antibiotics keeps growing because of the over-prescribing of antibiotics.
In fact, an estimated 30 percent of antibiotics prescribed are unnecessary (meaning that no antibiotic was needed at all) according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.8
5 steps to block harmful bacteria
Wonder how you can reduce your need for antibiotics and avoid a bacterial infection? Here are 5 things you can do:10
- Wash your hands often with soap and water, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Avoid sharing personal care items like towels, toothbrushes or razors.
- If you’re sick, make sure your doctor has a clear understanding of your symptoms. Discuss whether an antibiotic or a different type of treatment is appropriate for your illness.
- If antibiotics are needed, take the full course exactly as directed. Don’t save the medicine for a future illness, and don’t share with others.
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle—including proper diet, exercise, and good hygiene—to help prevent illness, thereby helping to prevent the overuse or misuse of medications.
Are antibiotics overused?
While they’re still an effective way to treat many bacterial infections, the rise in drug-resistant bacteria is making it harder for antibiotics to treat an infection.
Only taking antibiotics when necessary, avoiding bacterial infections with a healthy lifestyle and habits, and taking your full course of medication when it is needed can help reduce the overuse.