Section: Highlights

Too Much of a Good Thing:The growing danger of antibiotic-resistant bacteria

08/07/2015
Too Much of a Good Thing:The growing danger of antibiotic-resistant bacteria

Cold and flu season means missed school, missed work, and at least one trip to the family doctor to ask for an antibiotic. Antibiotics are only effective against certain bacteria, yet half of all antibiotic prescriptions are written for illnesses caused by viruses, such as colds, flu and sinus infections.

Health officials have been warning about antibiotic overuse and drug-resistant “superbugs” for a long time. The misuse of antibiotics to treat conditions they can’t possibly cure is a major reason for the alarming rise in “superbugs” — bacteria that have developed immunity to most antibiotics.

“Antibiotics are losing their effectiveness at a rate that is both alarming and irreversible,” says Bhanu Sud, MD, co-medical director of infection prevention and control at St. Jude Medical Center. The overuse of antibiotics has allowed bacteria to develop genetic protection. “Once bacteria have gained immunity from antibiotics, they are able to pass along this resistance to other bacteria.”

Experts are worried that if the current trend continues, the medicine cabinet may be empty for patients who actually need them — what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is calling a “post-antibiotic” era, where none of the existing drugs work anymore.

“The more often you take antibiotics, the more likely you will develop antibiotic-resistant bacteria,” Dr. Sud says, explaining that while drugsensitive and beneficial bacteria are both killed by the antibiotic, resistant germs are left to grow, multiply and pass on their immunity.

Take, for example, the C. difficile germ. This antibiotic-resistant bacteria infected half a million people in the U.S. last year. A recent study by the CDC found that over 70 percent of the children diagnosed with C. difficile had been given antibiotics for upper respiratory infections, like colds or ear infections, in the weeks prior. “Patients want to leave a doctor’s appointment with a solution — and for many that means a prescription for an antibiotic,” Dr. Sud explains. “In the past, giving a patient an antibiotic seemed low-risk. Today, we have a much better idea of just how deadly the overuse of these wonder drugs can be.”

QUESTIONS WORTH ASKING YOUR DOCTOR

1. Do I really need an antibiotic or will I get better without it?

2. What side effects or drug interactions can I expect?

3. What side effects should I report to you?

4. Since antibiotics are not effective in fighting viruses, how do you know this infection is bacterial?

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