Antibiotics are a group of medicines used to treat infections caused by bacteria. For example, doctors prescribe antibiotics to treat a child with strep throat, which is caused by bacteria known as streptococcus. Antibiotics do not work against diseases caused by viruses. Using antibiotics indiscriminately only helps them to become ineffective over time.
Lately, hospitals have been seeing several strains of bacteria that are increasingly resistant to the usual antibiotic treatments. What’s really scary is that some of these bacteria are proving resistant to nearly all currently available antibiotics, creating dire situations for some patients in other countries and even here in the U.S. Last month, data released by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health identified numerous cases of potentially dangerous drug-resistant bacteria known as carbapenem-resistant Klebsiella pneumoniae, or CRKP, at several health care facilities in Southern California.
It’s important to recognize that most sore throats, coughs, colds, and influenza (flu) cases are caused by viruses, so using antibiotics will not cure the infection and will not keep other people from catching the virus. They also won’t help a help a person feel better but, instead, may cause unnecessary, harmful side effects.
Misuse of antibiotics has led to the worldwide problem known as “antibiotic resistance.” As bacteria are increasingly exposed to antibiotics, some of them mutate into stronger forms that are resistant to the drugs. Antibiotics that had been used to attack the disease no longer work, and the bacteria spread more easily to other people. They also cause longer, more complicated illnesses, and more deaths.
To treat the infections, doctors are forced to use stronger and more expensive antibiotics. Some strains of bacteria become resistant to more than one. These are sometimes called “superbugs.”
Overexposure of bacteria to antibiotics involves far more than unnecessary prescriptions written for ill Americans. In some countries, such as Mexico, antibiotics are available over-the-counter. And antibiotics are used widely in entirely different arena: raising animals on farms.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been involved in promoting awareness about antibiotic resistance. The agency has partnered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to promote the “Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work” program. It includes brochures, fact sheets, and other information to help people learn about preventing antibiotic-resistant infections.
Scientists and drug companies are also working furiously to address the problem, and trying hard to develop new antibiotics to replace the older drugs to which bacteria have developed resistance. But the cycle will probably just continue over time without your help.
Here's what you can do:
- If you’re sick, see your doctor to get the right treatment. Remember, antibiotics should only be prescribed if your condition is believed to be caused by bacteria. Colds are caused by viruses, so antibiotics are not effective (but anti-virals are).
- Don’t demand antibiotics if your doctor believes that they are not needed. Sometimes a doctor who is under pressure may go along with a patient’s request, perhaps to keep an anxious parent satisfied or because the doctor feels he or she does not have the time to explain why antibiotics aren’t necessary.
- When antibiotics are prescribed, complete the full course. It’s important to take all of the medicine that was prescribed by your doctor, even if you are feeling better. Do not skip doses either. Antibiotics are most effective when they are taken on a regular basis at the prescribed frequency to assure proper blood levels. If not used properly, the drugs may not kill all the bacteria. You may become sick again – and there is an increased likelihood that the surviving bacteria will pass on a resistance to the antibiotic.
- Don’t take antibiotics that were prescribed for someone else. The antibiotic may not be the right one to treat your condition and your symptoms may even get worse.
- Don't save unused antibiotics. Besides the importance of finishing the prescribed course, keeping the drugs around makes it more likely that you will use them in the future for an illness that they will not treat. That can delay getting the right medicine, and may allow your condition to get worse.
- If you are a patient in the hospital, make sure that doctors and other staff washed their hands after touching the previous patient; if you didn't see them do it, ask to be reassured that they did. Reducing the spread of all kinds of infections in hospitals has become a big issue in recent years, with major campaigns reminding workers to regularly wash their hands or use hand sanitizers, so requests from patients are often appreciated.
- Finally, talk with your healthcare professional about these issues. Ask questions, especially if you are uncertain about when an antibiotic is appropriate or how to take it.
After the CRKP bacteria were identified in California last month, officials there discussed a number of things that hospitals could do. And the CDC posts lots of information about antibiotic resistance.
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