Antibiotics occupy our vernacular in modern medicine. That being said, they are by no means the cure-all that they are often advertised to be. In fact, while they can be extremely effective in certain cases, there is growing evidence of very negative effects when they are used inappropriately. Understanding and knowing when to use antibiotics is useful not only for the doctors prescribing them, but also for the general public taking them!
Antibiotics are useless against upper respiratory viral infections like the common cold, flu, running nose, bronchitis, and most sore throats. In addition, fungal infections like roundworm are also immune to antibiotics. Why are antibiotics useless against viral infections? Antibiotics work in various ways to attack the growth and reproduction of bacterial cells only. Some affect the synthesis of important enzymes and proteins that bacteria need to live, while others disrupt different vectors of bacterial reproduction. Viruses themselves are not living and require a host cell to reproduce; thus, they lack the internal structures that the antibiotics would attack.
Inappropriate usage of antibiotics can lead to the death of good bacteria like the food-digesting bacteria, bifidobacterium, which can lead to complications such as diarrhea or yeast infection. Though less common, antibiotics can also cause a serious allergic reaction that may require hospitalization. Perhaps the most concerning side-effect of inappropriate antibiotic usage is the production of an antibiotic-resistant infection. Resistant bacteria are stronger and harder to kill. They can stay in your body and cause severe illnesses that cannot be cured with normal antibiotics. According to the CDC threat report in 2013, there have been at least 2,049,442 illnesses and 23,000 deaths as a result of antibiotic resistance.
Image Source: Rafe Swan
As a direct result of antibiotic resistance, there has been an increase in gram-negative bacteria -most notably: Clostridium difficile (C. difficile) – over the years. Gram-negative bacteria cause infections including pneumonia, bloodstream infections, wound or surgical site infections, and meningitis in healthcare settings. They are resistant to multiple drugs and are increasingly resistant to available antibiotics. Another issue is that they can also pass along genetic material that allows other bacteria to become drug-resistant as well.
As of now, decreasing inappropriate antibiotic use seems to be the best way to control resistance. An interesting side to this issue is parent pressure. A recent study about pediatric care showed that doctors prescribe antibiotics 65% of the time if the patient’s parents expect them, and 12% of the time if the parents do not expect them.
So by all means, if you have contracted a bacterial infection, use antibiotics prescribed by your physician. The main thing to understand is that they are not a cure-all fix, and they should be used with caution.
Feature Image Source: Antibiotics by Sheep purple