Each year, millions of people request antibiotics from their health care providers for viruses that are not cured by these drugs.
To help draw attention to this increasing problem, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is observing the "Get Smart About Antibiotics Week," on October 5-11, 2009.
"Antibiotics are powerful drugs used as the first line of defense against many kinds of infections," explained Family Practice physician Dean Economous, M.D. "However, antibiotics are not effective against viruses and should only be used for treating bacterial infections, certain fungal infections and some kinds of parasites. Taking antibiotics when they are not needed can lead to antibiotic-resistant germs."
The frequent use of antibiotics for conditions or infections that are caused by viruses has given rise to bacteria that are resistant to many commonly used antibiotics. "Superbugs emerge when an antibiotic fails to kill all of the bacteria it targets, and the surviving bacteria becomes resistant to that particular drug," Dr. Economous continued. "The bacteria is able to resist the antibiotic by changing in some way that reduces or eliminates the effectiveness of the drug that is designed to cure or prevent the infection."
Antibiotics Don't Work Against
Viral Infections Causing:
Most ear infections
Most sore throats
Antibiotics Do Work Against
Bacterial Infections Causing:
Some ear infections
Severe sinus infections
Urinary tract infections
Many wound and skin infections
What Not To Do
- Do not demand antibiotics when a healthcare provider says they are not needed.
- Do not take an antibiotic for a viral infection like a cold, cough, or the flu.
-Do not take antibiotics prescribed for someone else. The antibiotic may not be appropriate for your illness. Taking the wrong medicine may also delay correct treatment and allow bacteria to multiply.
If your healthcare provider prescribes an antibiotic for you:
- Do not skip doses.
- Do not save any of the antibiotics for the next time you get sick.
For example, the potent antibiotic vancomycin was a reliable last defense against certain severe infections, especially those caused by staphylococcus bacteria. But in recent years, some superbugs have developed the ability to resist even this powerful drug.
"As bacteria becomes more resistant to first line antibiotic treatments, illnesses can last longer and the risk of complications or death increases," Dr. Economous continued. "The inability to treat a particular infection also leads to longer periods in which a person is contagious and can spread the resistant bacteria to others."
What You Can Do
- Understand when antibiotics should be used. "Don't expect to take antibiotics every time you're sick," Dr. Economous added. "Antibiotics are effective in treating most bacterial infections, but they're not useful against viral infections, such as colds, acute bronchitis or the flu."
- Don't pressure your doctor for antibiotics if you have a viral illness. Children have the highest rates of antibiotic use, along with one of the highest rates of infections caused by antibiotic-resistant germs. According to the CDC, a pediatric study showed that doctors prescribe antibiotics 65 percent of the time if they perceive parents expect them for their children and 12 percent of the time if they feel parents do not expect them.
- Take antibiotics exactly as prescribed. "Follow your doctor's instructions when taking a prescribed antibiotic," added Dr. Economous. "Never skip doses or stop treatment early if you start feeling better. A shortened course of antibiotics often wipes out only the most vulnerable bacteria and allows the remaining bacteria to become stronger."
- Never take antibiotics without a prescription. "Some people may be tempted to use leftover medication the next time they are sick or pass it on to others, if they didn't complete their full course of treatment," said Dr. Economous. "This is dangerous because every time a person takes antibiotics, sensitive bacteria are killed, but resistant germs may be left to grow and multiply. The repeated and improper use of antibiotics is the primary cause of the increase in drug-resistant bacteria."
- Protect yourself from infection in the first place. "Practice good hygiene and wash your hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and water, especially after using the toilet, changing a diaper or handling raw meat," Dr. Economous advised.
"Antibiotic resistance can cause significant danger and suffering for people who have common infections that once were easily treatable," Dr. Economous concluded. "When antibiotics fail to work, the consequences are longer-lasting and more severe illnesses, more doctor visits or extended hospital stays, and the need for more expensive or toxic medications. Some resistant infections can even cause death."
Dean Economous, M.D., is a board certified family practice physician affiliated with Salem Community Hospital's active medical staff and the Family Practice Center of Salem, Inc; located at 2370 Southeast Boulevard in Salem, 330-332-9961.