Antibiotics are designed to attack and destroy the microbes that make you sick, like bacteria. But what if the bad bacteria can become resistant to these antibiotics? Then, in the future, the medicine would stop working. Unfortunately, this is happening on a global scale due to the overuse and misuse of antibiotics.
This global epidemic is called antibiotic resistance. It means bacteria will naturally develop resistance to antibiotic drugs over time. To combat this, doctors and pharmacists should reserve antibiotics for situations where they are necessary to fight harmful bacteria. Overuse and misuse of antibiotics can cause antibiotic resistance, which in turn creates super-bugs (microbes that can no longer be treated with available drugs).
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report at least 2.8 million people in the U.S. become sick every year with an infection resistant to one or more antibiotics and 35,000 of those people die from antibiotic-resistant infections.
Antibiotics can also have side effects, from nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and rash, to effects on the heart and blood. One of the cruel ironies of antibiotics is that they can also eliminate the naturally occurring good bacteria in our guts, which can lead to other infections.
Here are things you can do to prevent antibiotic resistance:
- Know the difference between bacteria and viruses: Antibiotics are meant to treat bacterial infections, but they won’t help if you have a virus. If you take an antibiotic when you’re sick with a virus, the medicine will attack other bacteria in your body that keep you healthy. Even good bacteria that have been attacked by antibiotics can become antibiotic resistant and then share this resistance with bad bacteria. Generally, most common colds, influenza (the flu), sore throats, stomach bugs, coughs and some sinus infections are viral and not bacterial, so don’t automatically ask for antibiotics to treat them.
- Follow the instructions: Antibiotic resistance can also come from failing to take antibiotics as prescribed. Antibiotics are powerful and, when used appropriately, make you feel better in a day or two. You might be tempted to stop taking them but check with your doctor first and be sure to follow instructions from your pharmacist. Not taking your medication as prescribed can also contribute to resistance.
- Become a steward of your own health: Becoming educated about the medicines you’re prescribed and using them correctly can reduce resistance. This makes it more likely that you’ll get better if you’re ever infected with bacteria. Just as importantly, it ensures that everyone else is less likely to be infected by “super-bugs,” which are resistant to multiple drugs. Start by talking to your doctor to determine if antibiotics are truly necessary for your sickness. They may not be. Ask your doctor if there are things you can do other than take an antibiotic. Your doctor may recommend things you can do that will help with a viral illness, when an antibiotic won’t. Supplementary treatments include steam therapy, consuming lots of fluids, getting lots of rest, throat lozenges, warm compresses and over-the-counter medications, like decongestants, acetaminophen, naproxen, ibuprofen, antihistamines or cough medicines. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you miss a dose, and never treat yourself with leftover antibiotics.
- Build immunity as much as you can: With the threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria growing, it’s important to strengthen your immune system. Make sure you eat a balanced diet, get enough sleep and exercise regularly. You can also eat foods high in Vitamin C, like red and green peppers, kiwi, grapefruit and, of course, oranges. Don’t forget to take steps to avoid infection, like washing your hands regularly, especially after interaction with someone who is sick and before you eat. While we can’t know for sure, some people report positive benefits when taking over-the-counter zinc or echinacea for the common cold, especially to prevent getting sick.
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