According to many public health agencies, antibiotic resistance is one of the world’s most pressing health concerns. It is developing for several reasons, including improper prescribing and use of antibiotics as well as adding them to animal feed and other products. Patient pressure on doctors to prescribe antibiotics and overuse of antibiotics also contributes to resistance.
Antibiotic medications kill or overcome bacteria. Different types (or classes) of antibiotics work in different ways to harm bacteria that cause disease and infection. Thanks to antibiotics, the picture of infectious and chronic disease has shifted.
However, antibiotics only work against bacteria, not against viruses. Viruses are another type of germ. They are often responsible for illnesses like coughs, sore throats, upset stomachs, and the common cold. It is estimated that healthy children catch up to six viruses a year, and adults, two to three. None of these need antibiotics.
Many people assume they need an antibiotic when they are sick. However, illnesses are often caused by viruses, which are not helped by an antibiotic. In children, even ear infections and sinus infections producing thick green mucus are often viral, as are most sore throats. A virus is also often the cause of coughs and bronchitis.
Antibiotics might be needed for certain ear infections, sinus infections that last more than a week, and strep throat (which is diagnosed with a swab). Sexually transmitted infections, such as chlamydia and gonorrhea, can also be treated with antibiotics.
Antibiotics may be given before surgery or dental procedures to prevent infection in those at risk. If somebody has been exposed to certain diseases, a doctor may give a preventive antibiotic to keep the person from getting sick.
If you are feeling ill or are concerned about certain symptoms, see your health care provider. Your doctor will ask questions and do a physical exam to try to figure out if a virus or bacteria is causing the problem. A test such as a throat swab may be done. It may be possible to tell what is wrong from the physical exam and symptoms you describe. If you think you need an antibiotic, say why. Your doctor can then explain to you why it is or is not necessary. If you are worried your doctor is trying to give you or your child a prescription you may not need, voice your concern. Ask what would happen if you do not take it.
Upset stomach and diarrhea are the most common side effects of taking an antibiotic. Allergic reaction is also possible, although true allergy to antibiotics is not very common. Antibiotics cannot tell the difference between the bacteria making you sick, and the good bacteria in your body that you need. So using antibiotics can kill the good bacteria in the gut (the normal flora) and alter digestion and bowel routines. Some antibiotics may allow the overgrowth of bacteria called Clostridium difficile, or C. diff. This causes bad diarrhea.
Bacteria reproduce quickly and so can easily become resistant to antibiotics. This means the drugs will no longer work to kill or harm the bacteria. The risk is particularly high when all the antibiotics given in a prescription are not taken, or are taken for infection not caused by bacteria. Once resistant, the bacteria can spread from person to person, causing infections that are difficult to treat. This is why resistance is a public health issue. It can affect anyone and everyone.
Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria meant to be destroyed by an antibiotic are no longer killed by the drug. The drug will not work to fix the infection. Resistance can be to just one antibiotic. Often it is to the whole class (or type) of antibiotics, because antibiotics of a general type work similarly to each other. Resistance can be passed from bacteria to bacteria when they multiply and reproduce. It can also be passed between bacteria. Thanks to this, resistance spreads rapidly.
When bacteria become resistant to the usual first-choice drugs, doctors must use newer and stronger medications to treat people. This creates a number of problems. The risk of serious side effects is higher. The medication costs more. The bacteria may develop even more resistance. As well, we are not discovering as many new antibiotics as quickly as new types of resistance are developing. Many worry we may end up without ways of treating infections caused by bacteria.
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Hopefully, as more people learn about antibiotic resistance and the proper use of antibiotics, the development of resistance will slow.
Begin by buying meat, milk and eggs from producers who do not use extra antibiotics. It is fine to treat sick animals with medication, but many farmers add antibiotics to animal feed to increase animal weight. This leads to widespread antibiotic resistance. Consider talking to farming associations and governments about making guidelines, regulations and laws that limit antibiotic use.
When you are sick, doing the following will help prevent antibiotic resistance.
Doctors and other care providers, such as nurses and nurse practitioners, are improving how they use antibiotics. Often they use guidelines for local areas to understand resistance patterns and give the most appropriate treatment. Hospitals and some agencies, like the Canadian Antimicrobial Resistance Alliance, research and track resistance patterns to help provide current information.
The best way to protect yourself from bacteria and viruses, the germs that make you sick, is to wash your hands. Wash with warm water and soap, rubbing vigorously for thirty seconds, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if your hands are not visibly dirty. Plain soap works just fine. Soap advertised as antibacterial is not needed or recommended, and can lead to bacteria becoming resistant. Teach children to wash their hands for the length of time it takes to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ or ‘The Alphabet Song’. Be sure to clean your hands before preparing or eating food, after going to the bathroom, coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose, and after contact with pets. It is a good habit to wash after being out in public, when you get home from school or work, and after being on the bus.
You can also stay healthy by not smoking, eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep. Remember, you can help stop antibiotic resistance by using antibiotics wisely!
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