Heard the words “antibiotic resistance” lately? If not, you probably will, because it’s a topic of growing concern to health experts and government officials alike.
The term refers to a puzzle of modern medicine: Many of our country’s most reliable, most widely used antibacterial drugs don’t work very well against bacteria any more. In fact, some have stopped working altogether.
Somehow, these microscopic bugs—culprits in strep throat, tuberculosis, pneumonia, meningitis and gonorrhea, to name just a few illnesses—have become resistant to the drugs that once defeated them at nearly every turn.
Tarnished silver bullets
Germs have the natural ability to mutate to survive an attack from antibiotics. Some strains can also pass this quality on to other bacteria, which gives those germs a better chance of survival against modern medicines, too.
Drug overuse and misuse are two big reasons why bacteria have managed to outmaneuver antibiotics, experts say. Too often, these so-called silver-bullet drugs are used to treat viral infections, like colds, flu or middle-ear infections instead of bacterial infections.
Actually, antibiotics have no effect on viruses, so taking penicillin to treat a bad cold, for instance, is pointless. Yet, many people pester their healthcare providers until they get the drugs anyway.
Likewise, many patients who begin taking antibiotics for the right reasons quit too soon. By stopping their prescriptions as soon as they feel better instead of when the drugs are used up, patients unwittingly let bacteria reproduce and mutate. This helps blunt the drugs’ effectiveness. Already, some bacteria are resistant to every approved antibiotic in the medical arsenal, requiring further expensive research to develop new drugs.
While more effective compounds are developed to fight resistant germs, you can help tame bacteria as well. Follow these steps:
- Don’t “bug” your doctor. If you’re sick, find out if an antibiotic will really help you feel better. Remember, they aren’t cure-alls. Take “no” for an answer if your physician advises you that an antibiotic is not the proper therapy for your condition. Ask him or her about alternative remedies.
- Finish what you start. Take every last ounce of medicine you’ve been prescribed in the exact dosage and time frame recommended by your doctor whenever he or she gives you an antibiotic to treat your condition.
- Forget doing it yourself. Do away with “stashes” of antibiotics with which you self-medicate sickness or infection when someone falls ill.
- Don’t share. Never take someone else’s antibiotics to fight an illness.
- Think it over. Reconsider using antibacterial soaps and cleansers around the home. The American Medical Association says some bacteria seem to already be resistant to these products. And studies have found that they don’t provide added germ protection to people already living in a clean household.
Preventing infections from spreading is the best way to stay healthy. Remember to:
- Wash your hands often, especially when handling food, eating and after using the restroom.
- Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. When in doubt, throw it out.
- Keep kitchen and bathroom surfaces clean and dry.
- Never share personal items—toothbrushes, combs or unwashed cups or plates. Use paper cups in the bathroom. Change linen and towels regularly, especially after an illness.
- Stay home from work if you’re feverish or nauseated.
- Never send a sick child to school or day care.