More and more doctors and scientists are beginning to understand antibiotics. Antibiotics are drugs that are used primarily to kill bacterial infections. They have been in widespread use since about the 1940s, when penicillin, “the wonder drug,” was introduced. Make no mistake about it: Antibiotics are indeed a wonder drug. They have saved lives by the millions, dramatically reducing death and illness in the areas where they are available.
The problem, in a way, is that familiarity breeds contempt. Many disease-causing bacteria have developed resistance to the drugs that used to work so effectively. Misuse and overuse of antibiotics has increased the exposure time of these bacteria to the drugs. Through mutation, some bacteria “adapt” their structure to create new generations of bacteria that are “resistant,” meaning they cannot be killed by antibiotics. These resistant bacteria have been given the nickname “superbugs.”
Experts have known about the potential for drug resistance for almost as long as antibiotics have been in use. Still, antibiotic use has grown and grown to the point where prescriptions are handed out almost like candy. Drug companies developed more and better antibiotics and doctors, seeing their marvelous healing effects, began prescribing them for a wider variety of conditions. Patients with a cold or the flu routinely began expecting to be put on antibiotics, even though most of those infections are caused by viruses, upon which antibiotics have no effect.
In the United States, antibiotic treatment has now become the norm at the first sign of an ear infection in children. Antibiotics are used on livestock, both as treatment and prevention. They are even used in the fields on certain crops.
Manufacturers have begun putting antibiotics in a vast array of household products. “Anti-bacterial” items on the market now include body soap, dishwashing liquid, sponges, cutting boards and children’s toys.
This overuse of antibiotics is contributing to the evolution of more and more superbugs. Today, there are grave problems with drug resistance in many diseases, including pneumonia, tuberculosis, ear infections and certain infections that occur among hospital patients. Resistance is beginning to show up among other bacteria, such as the one that causes meningitis. Dangerous new strains of bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli are showing up with greater frequency in our food supply.
A number of drug companies are working fast and furiously to develop new antibiotics. But this will not put an end to the problem of drug resistance. It is likely, however, that if we learn to use antibiotics more prudently, the disease organisms may gradually revert to forms that are once again susceptible to antibiotics.
The U.S. government’s Centers for Disease Control launched a campaign to promote judicious use of antibiotics. The participation of consumers is crucial if we are to overcome the problem of drug resistance. Here are some things you can do to help:
- If your doctor thinks antibiotics are not necessary, do not demand them.
- When you get a necessary prescription for yourself or a child, be sure to take the entire course of medication. Do not stop the antibiotics just because you feel better. If you stop prematurely, bacteria that have not been killed may start to develop drug resistance.
- Do not take someone else’s prescription or share yours with others.
- Do not save unused antibiotics.
- If you do have leftover antibiotics and you get sick again, do not self-medicate. If your doctor puts you on the same antibiotics, make sure they are not outdated, and ask your doctor if it is OK to take them.