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Do Your Part to Counter Antibiotic Resistance

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This past May, scientists at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research made an alarming discovery: A sample of E. coli—a common disease-causing bacteria in humans—had developed resistance to the antibiotic colistin.

This was particularly disturbing for two reasons: First, colistin has been one of medicine’s most reliable antibiotics, working in cases where other antibiotics are no longer effective. Second, scientists discovered that the resistance to colistin in E. coli could potentially transfer to other bacteria, as well as other types of disease-causing organisms—which would make them also resistant to colistin.

For most of human history, there was very little we could do to stop bacterial infections from causing great harm or even death. By the 1940s, however, antibiotics were being developed—wonder drugs that could destroy bacteria. From that time on, antibiotics have become one of the most commonly prescribed medications.

The problem is that bacteria have developed ways to resist the properties of antibiotics that used to kill them. As a result, we’ve seen some of our most useful antibiotics become less dependable, and others are obsolete because they’ve been so badly compromised. At the same time, new antibiotics are not being developed.

There are a variety of factors that have accelerated bacterial resistance, but one of the biggest is overuse and misuse of antibiotics. To understand why this is the case, it is important to remember that antibiotics are effective only in illnesses that are caused by bacteria. Some common bacterial diseases include urinary tract infection, pneumonia, some cases of meningitis, several types of food poisoning, cellulitis, impetigo and a number of sexually transmitted diseases, including gonorrhea and syphilis.

However, many common illnesses are caused by viruses—not bacteria. Viral illnesses include colds, sinusitis, ear infection, flu, gastroenteritis or “stomach flu,” and some types of food poisoning. Viruses and bacteria are completely different things, so antibiotics will never help with viral illnesses.

When you take antibiotics unnecessarily or incorrectly, you give bacteria the opportunity to “practice” defeating antibiotics. That may not seem to be a big deal in your own personal experience, but when you multiply it by possibly millions of people worldwide who misuse antibiotics, the effect is enormous.

Here are some ways you can do your part to slow the growth of antibiotic resistance:

Don’t demand an antibiotic for every illness. When you or your child is ill, it’s understandable that you want to get relief as quickly as possible. However, it’s important to listen to your doctor’s advice, even if it’s not what you came in expecting to hear. He or she will be able to determine whether your illness is caused by bacteria or a virus. In some cases, such as an ear infection or sinusitis, your doctor may suggest waiting for a few days to see if the issue resolves itself instead of immediately prescribing medication. In the meantime, there are over-the-counter remedies that can help relieve pain. This more conservative approach gives the body the opportunity to heal itself and helps to eliminate the unnecessary use of antibiotics and other prescription medications. It also prevents the possibility of side-effects that sometimes come with antibiotic use, such as gastrointestinal upset—or worse, antibiotic-associated diarrhea, allergic reactions and so forth.

Take the full course of antibiotics. When your doctor prescribes an antibiotic, make sure to take the medicine for the full amount of time indicated on the prescription label, even if you feel better after a couple of days. When you stop taking an antibiotic before all the bacteria are killed, you enable the strongest bacteria to survive, thrive and learn how to resist the antibiotic in the future.

Don’t take old antibiotic prescriptions or antibiotics prescribed for another person. Most antibiotics are ineffective after a year, and various antibiotics are effective for specific illnesses, so by taking old or improper medication, you’re potentially harming yourself while providing bacteria the opportunity to create resistance.

Some scientists say we’re reaching the end of the “era of antibiotics,” while others aren’t as pessimistic. Either way, there are things each of us can do to keep our remaining antibiotic choices effective for as long as possible. This is an important—and lifesaving—goal.

Nancy Sun, MD, is a board-certified emergency medicine specialist in Simi Valley Hospital’s Emergency Department.