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Antibiotic resistance and what it means for human beings

December 3, 2018 • read

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Antibiotic resistance and what it means for human beings

Antibiotics are arguably the most important medical discovery of the last hundred years. Before their widespread use, you could die from an infected scratch received while gardening. Antibiotics save countless lives all over the world, but their ubiquity has become the problem. Our overuse of antibiotics is leading to antibiotic resistance, and if we don’t figure out a solution, we might not be able to use them at all.  

What is an antibiotic?

Antibiotics are a class of medication that fight bacterial infections. They work in two main ways; either by killing the “bad” bacteria outright, or by stopping them from reproducing. Chances are you’ve heard the story of how penicillin was discovered by accident, when a mould in a petri dish was observed to kill bacteria, but today antibiotics are synthesized in labs. You can take antibiotics topically (on the skin), intravenously, or orally, depending on the infection.

When should I use antibiotics?

While antibiotics treat a lot of conditions, they have their limitations. Antibiotics treat bacterial infections only. They don’t kill viruses, so they can’t treat a cold or the flu, no matter how bad you feel! Some can be used to kill a large number of different bacteria — these are known as broad spectrum antibiotics. Antibiotics also kill the bacteria that are beneficial to us, including those that live in our gut. That is why nausea and stomach issues are the most common side effects.

What is antibiotic resistance?

You know how your doctor and pharmacist always tell you to finish the entire course of antibiotics? There’s a reason for that. It takes time for antibiotics to kill the bacteria in your system. If you stop your course of antibiotics mid-way through because you feel better, you may not have gotten rid of all the bad bacteria. You’re most likely feeling better because you’ve taken enough medication to kill most of them. But if you haven’t finished the whole course, you could be leaving the hardiest bacteria alive, and they will keep reproducing. Bacteria that survive antibiotic exposure once, can do it more easily in the future. This means that something like pneumonia can become antibiotic-resistant pneumonia, also known as a “superbug.” Because the bacteria is now immune to the usual medication.

Bacteria also have the ability to communicate with each other. So a bacterium that has a gene that makes it resistant to an antibiotic, can share that gene with other bacteria, giving them the ability to fight back against the antibiotic.

What are some dangers of overuse?

Simply put, antibiotic resistance means that we have fewer tools to fight bacterial infections. The “superbug” pneumonia we just mentioned is real and it’s not alone. There are other illnesses in Canada like tuberculosis which are also antibiotic-resistant. This means they are much more difficult to get rid of and much more likely to cause unpleasant complications. These so-called “superbugs” are only part of the problem.

Without antibiotics, many of the routine surgeries and operations carried out every day, become exponentially more dangerous. Many of us probably don’t appreciate the near miracles that these drugs have worked for human beings. Take us back to pre-antibiotic times, however, and their importance becomes evident. Before their widespread use, the number one cause of death was infectious disease. The adoption of antibiotics caused life expectancy to rise by more than 30 years! Procedures like having your appendix removed are only routine and safe because of antibiotics. Without them, not only would an appendectomy become life-threatening, more complex surgeries such as transplants would be all but impossible.

This is why doctors don’t like to prescribe antibiotics unless necessary. Best practices dictate that doctors don’t prescribe them to treat conditions like earaches in adults, which will likely go away on their own. Because our doctors have the luxury of time to better explain the superbug phenomenon, our prescribing rates are lower than the average Canadian clinic.

Side effects of antibiotics

There’s no denying that antibiotics have worked wonders, but like all medications, they also have side effects. Antibiotics can trigger allergic reactions in some. Their use can also be associated with things like rashes, allergies, sun sensitivity and C. difficile. In certain cases, they have even been linked to tendon rupture.

So what can I do?

For starters, always take your full course of antibiotics — don’t stop even if you feel 100% better. Secondly, take only medications prescribed to you, and don’t share yours with other people. Even if you know that your cousin has the same illness as you, sharing antibiotics is not the answer! Your doctor prescribed you the exact amount you need, so your cousin needs to get their own. If you share, neither of you may get enough medication to kill the bacteria. If you’ve taken antibiotics and find you haven’t gotten better, let your doctor know. And when it comes to disposing of old medicine, take it back to the pharmacy: don’t throw it out or flush it.

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