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
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
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?