If you’ve been sick already this season, there’s a decent chance you were given an antibiotic to help you get better. It’s a common occurrence and has been for decades. After all, antibiotics can be a life-saving tool when it comes to treating bacterial infections that, decades ago, made people very sick and even led to death. And while they can certainly be a good thing, the use – and overuse – of antibiotics has led to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report on the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and infections that pointed to them as a major threat to public health. The CDC estimates that antibiotic-resistant bacteria cause 2.8 million infections each year in the United States – infections that lead to at least 35,000 deaths.
“Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria change or evolve,” said Blount Memorial infection control coordinator Mary Kathryn Cockrill, sharing information from the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC). “These bacteria grow to resist the effects of the antibiotics used to fight them and then they multiply. When they become antibiotic-resistant, these bacteria can be almost impossible to treat, and the people who develop an infection often must be hospitalized, due to how dangerous and potentially life-threatening their infection is,” she said. “Also, antibiotic-resistant infections spread easily to others,” she added.
The CDC estimates that 30 percent of antibiotics prescribed in outpatient clinics are not necessary, particularly when it comes to colds or the flu because they’re caused by a virus, not a bacterial infection. “It’s important to remember that antibiotics will not reduce cold or flu symptoms, so if your health care provider says you don’t need an antibiotic for the illness you have, don’t ask for one,” Cockrill said. “They’re also typically not needed if you have an ear infection, sinus infection or a sore throat. If you are prescribed an antibiotic, remember to take it exactly as prescribed. If not, the bacteria in your system can continue to grow. Don’t try to save them for another illness down the road. They’re prescribed for you for a specific infection, and taking one antibiotic to try to help with another bacteria can cause the bacteria to multiply,” she explained. “Also, for this reason, you should never take someone else’s antibiotics. If you do have leftover medicines after you’ve recovered from an illness, it’s important to dispose of them properly,” she added.
“Ultimately, it’s important to know the basics when it comes to antibiotics,” Cockrill said. “Ask your health care provider if you really need the antibiotic you’re being prescribed. Find out for sure if he or she thinks you’d get better without it. While you’re at it, ask about possible side effects and which side effects are serious enough to report to your provider,” she explained. “All these questions are fair. You have a right to know as much as possible about your specific infection and whether antibiotics are right for you,” she added.