Do you need that antibiotic?

June 24, 2014

Antibiotics have been the first line of defense when it comes to fighting infection and illness for decades.

But their popularity has given rise to bacteria strains that have become resistant to many antibiotics, leading the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) to call it one of the world's most urgent public health problems.

antibiotic resistance
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Antibiotic resistance occurs when an infection no longer responds to the medication designed to treat it. This means that even common infections treated with an antibiotic, such as urinary tract infections, are becoming harder to fight as bacteria adapt and become stronger.

Bacteria develop antibiotic resistance in two ways: either through a new genetic change enables it to survive, or by getting DNA from a bacterium that is already resistant. Taking antibiotics frequently over long periods of time can lead to resistance and cause it to spread.

If antibiotic resistance isn’t brought under control, the consequences worldwide include:
  • Longer-lasting illnesses
  • More doctor visits
  • Longer hospital stays
  • The need for more expensive medications
  • More “superbugs,” which are resistant to multiple antibiotic types
  • Death from previously treatable conditions

Educating consumers

Patients and their doctors must take responsibility for combating antibiotic resistance, says UC Irvine Health family physician Dr. Emily Dow.

The problem is twofold: Patients see their physician and expect to be prescribed an antibiotic  for their ailment, whether it’s appropriate or not. The physician may then prescribe the antibiotic rather than educate the patient.

“It takes longer to explain why the patient doesn’t need an antibiotic,” Dow says. “It’s easier to just write that prescription.”

She urges physicians to discuss appropriate antibiotic use with their patients, and to educate them when they request an antibiotic that won’t help them.

In turn, Dow says, consumers should see the doctor when they are sick, but not assume the treatment will be an antibiotic.

“Have a frank discussion with your doctor. Find out everything you can about your illness, what’s causing it and what you need to do to get better.”

Antibiotic risks

Antibiotics are a potent weapon against bacterial infections, but they’re not completely benign to take, Dow says.

Risks associated with taking antibiotics include:

  • Unpleasant side effects such as diarrhea, vomiting and nausea
  • The development of other infections, such as yeast infections
  • Previously unknown allergies to specific antibiotics

When you are prescribed an antibiotic, the benefits often outweigh the risks, says Dow. “When antibiotics are used well, they can save lives.”

When antibiotics are overused or prescribed inappropriately, it leads to resistance. That means that when they are needed later, they may not be strong enough to kill the bacteria, both in the individual and in the larger community.

“That means that stronger and stronger antibiotics need to be developed to kill off the bacteria,” says Dow.

—Heather Shannon, UC Irvine Health Marketing & Communications

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