Many of us don’t think twice about asking our doctors for antibiotics when we’re feeling lousy, believing these drugs will offer the quickest road back to good health. Yet, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), antibiotic resistance is one of the most urgent threats to the public’s health.
When bacteria develop the ability to defeat the drugs designed to kill them, antibiotic resistance occurs. Each year in the U.S., more than 2 million people are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria—and at least 23,000 people die as a result, the CDC reports.
Antibiotics do save lives. But approximately 30 percent of antibiotics, or 47 million prescriptions, are prescribed unnecessarily in doctors’ offices and emergency departments across the U.S. This endangers us all. Here are some facts about antibiotic use:
1. Taking an antibiotic to treat a viral infection won’t help.
Antibiotics are used to treat serious bacterial infections such as pneumonia, and to treat life-threatening conditions like sepsis. Antibiotics won’t help for some common bacterial infections including most cases of bronchitis, many sinus infections, and some ear infections. Antibiotics do not work on viral infections, such as colds, flu, or runny noses, even if the mucus is thick, yellow, or green, according to the CDC.
2. What doesn’t kill bacteria makes them stronger.
It’s a simple equation: the more antibiotics people use, the less effective they become. Why? Because any time bacteria are exposed to an antibiotic, some are destroyed and some survive. Surviving strains then multiply and can become resistant to antibiotics.
3. Taking these drugs is not without risk; side effects are common.
Antibiotics are worth the risk when a life is at stake. But when they aren’t needed, antibiotics can cause side effects that can harm you: rash, dizziness, nausea, diarrhea, and yeast infections.
4. Antibiotic overuse in livestock may be making the problem worse.
For decades, the food-producing animal industries have used antibiotics as feed additives to maximize the rate, health, and weight of cattle, sheep, pigs, and poultry, which humans then consume. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, there is evidence that the development of resistant strains of bacteria in humans is related to this practice.
5. Antibiotics are making their way into our water supply.
Many U.S. wastewater treatment plants have no way of removing antibiotics and other medications, so small amounts of these drugs are finding their way into our drinking water. The long-term health effects of this on humans are still being studied.
6. It’s important to take an antibiotic prescribed by your doctor exactly as instructed.
Never use an antibiotic prescribed for someone else. Never use old pills. And, never skip doses. Even if your symptoms go away, illness-causing bacteria may still be present in your body. Taking your prescription until it’s complete helps destroy these invaders, preventing them from multiplying. If you skip or stop treatment before the antibiotic cycle is over, the remaining bacteria can continue to multiply and become resistant to your antibiotic, potentially prolonging or worsening your illness.
7. Washing your hands is still the best way to stop the spread of infection.
The CDC states that regular hand soap and alcohol-based antibacterial liquid soaps are equally effective. The important thing is to wash your hands frequently with soap and warm water to avoid spreading infection, and to prevent inadvertently infecting yourself by touching your nose, mouth, or eyes with fingers that have recently touched an infected object or person.
The next time you’re under the weather, definitely reach out to your doctor for advice on getting well. And if they suggest antibiotics, talk to them about proper use, potential side effects, and possible alternatives.