What we should know about the growing threat of antibiotic resistant bacteria and how to help stem the tide.
Bacteria are single-celled organisms found inside and outside of our bodies. Not all bacteria are harmful, some are actually beneficial, and play an important role in functions of the body such as digestion. But, disease-causing bacteria can trigger illnesses, including strep throat, pneumonia, bladder infections, and some ear and sinus infections, just to mention a few common ones.
Alexander Fleming discovered the first antibiotic, penicillin, in 1928 and the use of antibiotics became common in the 1940s, transforming medical care and dramatically reducing illness and death from infectious diseases. But now, seventy-five years since Fleming introduced what was hailed as “the best thing since sliced bread,” we have a situation that can best be described as too much of a good thing. Every time bacteria encounter antibiotics, there’s a chance they will mutate and become resistant to that medication, making some conditions even tougher to treat, and potentially more dangerous.
Too often antibiotics are prescribed for mild infections that typically clear up on their own or for viral infections that do not respond to antibiotics. According to one study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1997, 21 percent of all antibiotic prescriptions written for adults were for colds, upper respiratory tract infections and bronchitis, three conditions for which antibiotics have “little or no benefit.” Still many of us insist that our physicians or our children’s pediatricians prescribe antibiotics for common viral infections. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), although the rate of antibiotic prescriptions written for children is declining, any unnecessary use of antibiotics increases the risk of antibiotic resistant “super bugs.” Researchers are also exploring how antibiotics given to livestock may contribute to the resistance crisis. So far, evidence suggests it could be part of the problem.
The DOs and DON’Ts of antibiotic use The AAP offers the following recommendations for parents regarding antibiotics:
• A sick child doesn’t necessarily mean antibiotics are required. Don’t pressure your child’s doctor to prescribe them.
• Antibiotics are only useful for bacterial infections, not viral infections, such as sinusitis, a simple sore throat, and bronchitis.
• Antibiotics don’t cure colds and flu. Treat cold and cough symptoms with home remedies.
• Remember that a fever fights infections and produces helpful antibodies to prevent future sickness.
• Give your child all of his or her prescribed antibiotics, even if he or she is feeling better.
• Throw away any unused antibiotics according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines.
What about antibacterial soaps and household cleaners?
Antibacterial-containing products are everywhere. With our obsession for all things germ-free, are we adding to the proliferation of antibiotic resistant bacteria? The final answer is not yet in, but there are indications that should be considered.
Proper hygiene is an important part of preventing the spread of infection at home and in the community. Hand washing and cleaning shared items and surfaces are an important part of preventing the spread of disease. We know that using soap to wash hands is more effective than using water alone because the surfactants in soap lift dirt and germs from the skin. But to date, studies have shown that there is no substantial health benefit from using soaps containing antibacterial ingredients compared with using plain soap (this does not include professionals in the healthcare setting). A link between antibacterial chemicals used in personal and household cleaning products and bacterial resistance has been shown in some studies.
Antibiotic resistance is one of the world’s most pressing public health problems. Almost every type of bacteria has become stronger and less responsive to antibiotic treatment when it is really needed. These antibiotic-resistant bacteria can quickly spread to family members, schoolmates, and co-workers – threatening communities with new strains of infectious diseases that are more difficult to cure and more expensive to treat. Vigilance in preventing the over- prescription of antibiotics, adherence to instructions for taking prescribed antibiotics, and prudence in the use of antibacterial products are positive steps toward helping to slow the rate of antibiotic resistant bacteria and safeguard our families and communities.
dig deeper: Want to learn more about the overuse of antibiotics and the increase of antibiotic resistant bacteria, check out Missing Microbes by Martin J. Blaser.