Since 1943, when pharmaceutical companies began mass-producing antibiotics, our lives have been made immeasurably easier. Thanks to these drugs, we no longer have to worry about dying from pneumonia, succumbing to dangerous staph infections, or wondering if we’ll survive TB. After all, we live in a time when curing an infection is only a prescription away. Right?
Not anymore. Even in our developed country, with easily-accessible medical care (and, perhaps, because of it,) bacteria are gaining the upper hand, becoming increasingly resistant to the life-saving drugs that once wiped them out with ease. Twelve years ago, the American Medical Association called the global increase in antibiotic resistance, ‘a public health problem of potentially crisis proportions.’ Today, they have even more reason for making such an alarmist statement.
Nearly 30 percent of the bacteria that cause pneumonia have become resistant to penicillin, and ten percent have become resistant to most other antibiotics.
MRSA, a resistant strain of staphylococcus that was historically confined to hospitals, has recently begun spreading to communities (see sidebar for more on MRSA).
Even TB and gonorrhea are making a comeback, in antibiotic-resistant forms. One in seven new cases of TB is now resistant to the two drugs that were once effective in treating the disease. Five percent of these people die from TB.
And every year, thousands of people die of antibiotic-resistant infections acquired during a hospital stay.
Our complacency in using antibiotics is largely to blame for this dangerous trend. In our effort to treat every cough, sore throat and earache, we often misuse antibiotics. We take them to treat viral infections, such as the cold and flu, even though antibiotics are useless against viruses. And if we do have a bacterial infection, we demand antibiotics from our doctor, often before giving our body a chance to fight off the illness on its own. We stop taking the antibiotic when we feel better, instead of finishing the prescription as directed. We take other people’s antibiotics. We self- prescribe and get drugs from other countries, often taking the wrong drug for our illness.
And with each of these practices, we give bacteria another chance to develop resistance and become ‘superbugs.’
Children are particularly threatened by the resistance problem because they have the highest rate of antibiotic use and the highest rate of infections caused by resistant bacteria. Furthermore, some antibiotics should not be administered to children, so a child infected with a resistant bacteria has fewer – and riskier – options for treatment than an adult with the same infection.
Drug companies are doing their best to stay one step ahead of resistant bacteria, but they have their work cut out for them. Bacteria have adapted ingenious ways to outwit agents designed to kill them. Working to the organisms’ advantage are their great numbers and their ability to regenerate quickly. But their most powerful tool for gaining resistance is their ability to share genes with other bacteria. This means that if one bacterium survives an encounter with an antibiotic drug, it can share that ability with other bacteria, even if those bacteria have never encountered the drug, and even if they belong to a completely different species. To make matters worse, the resistant bacterium can perform this gene sharing in a number of frighteningly efficient ways.
Each of us has a responsibility to use antibiotics prudently and correctly, so the drugs remain the powerful, life-saving tools that they are. Here’s how you can do your part.
Don’t take antibiotics for viral infections such as colds and flues. Antibiotics target bacteria, and are useless against viruses. If you don’t know whether your infection is bacterial or viral, ask for a culture or other appropriate test. And don’t pressure your doctor for antibiotics. Studies show that doctors frequently prescribe antibiotics for viral infections simply because the patients demand them.
While it’s true that some viral infections can result in a secondary bacterial infection, taking antibiotics in the viral stage will not necessarily prevent a bacterial infection and, in fact, may result in a more serious – and resistant – secondary infection.
Finish your prescription, even when you start feeling better. This is of paramount importance. When you take an antibiotic, the pathogenic bacteria don’t die all at once; the weakest organisms die first, and the strongest die last. When you stop taking a prescription before it’s finished, you’ve instantly become a human petri dish, allowing the most resistant bacteria to live and reproduce in your body. If your infection returns, there’s a good chance it will be worse than your original infection.
Don’t save antibiotics for future use. If you take your antibiotic as prescribed, you shouldn’t have any pills leftover. But if, for example, your doctor switches your prescription mid-course because of side effects, you should discard any unused drugs. Don’t flush medications down a toilet, where they can enter the water supply. Some pharmacies offer disposal services for unused drugs, but such services are not yet available in Truckee.
Don’t take antibiotics prescribed for someone else. Each antibiotic targets particular bacteria, and someone else’s drug may not be the right choice for your illness. Taking the wrong drug encourages your body to produce ‘superbugs.’
Take narrow-spectrum antibiotics when appropriate. Some antibiotics target a wide range of bacteria, while others target only a few. There is a current trend among doctors to prescribe broader-spectrum antibiotics, but this only contributes to the resistance problem by exposing multiple populations of bacteria to the antibiotic. Ask you doctor if there is a narrow-spectrum antibiotic that would be appropriate for your infection.
Stop using antibacterial soap. This surprising recommendation comes from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Antibacterial soaps are like mini topical antibiotic treatments for your hands. They sound effective, but studies have shown that antibacterial soaps are no better at preventing illness in the home than regular soap and water. Why? One reason is that soap and water work really well to remove germs from the body. But another reason is that it takes almost two solid minutes of scrubbing with an antibacterial soap to ‘disable’ the bacteria, and no one except hospital staff washes that thoroughly. Washing for any shorter period of time encourages resistant bacteria to develop. If soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing at least 62 percent ethyl alcohol, which kills the germs on contact.
Prevent infections. You won’t need antibiotics if you don’t get sick in the first place. Everyone needs antibiotics now and then, but if you find yourself needing the drugs multiple times a year for the same condition, try to address the root cause of your illness and work on strengthening your immune system.
~ Linda Lindsay is a 20-year Tahoe resident and mother of one. She has a degree in Natural Resources and has worked in environmental education, forestry and wilderness planning. Contact Linda at Linda@moonshineink.com or 530-587-3607.