Resistance is not futile: Negating antibiotic myths

We all can relate to the telltale sounds of winter:  Fresh snow crunching under our feet, shovels sliding along sidewalks, ice scrapers chipping at frozen windshields  . . . and lots and lots of coughing and sneezing! It’s flu, ear, sinus and throat infection season in America, and decongestants, cough medicine and throat lozenges are jumping off the shelves as we also line up at the pharmacy to get our antibiotics.

With kids back in school, poor hand-washing habits, and everyone sneezing and snorting around us, our natural immunities to bacterial and viral infections are taxed, leaving us more likely to contract a variety of illnesses. But it’s important to know the difference between bacterial and viral maladies, and the best ways to fight those symptoms once we’re sick.

Bacteria are single-celled organisms usually found all over the inside and outside of our bodies, except in the blood and spinal fluid. Many bacteria are not harmful. In fact, some are actually beneficial. However, disease-causing bacteria trigger illnesses, such as strep throat and some ear infections. Viruses are even smaller than bacteria. A virus cannot survive outside the body’s cells. It causes illnesses by invading healthy cells and reproducing.

Antibiotics are drugs that fight infections caused by bacteria. After the first use of antibiotics in the 1940s, they transformed medical care and dramatically reduced illness and death from infectious diseases. The term “antibiotic” originally referred to a natural compound produced by a fungus or another microorganism that kills bacteria which cause disease in humans or animals.

Antibiotics are our chosen line of offense against many types of infections, but they don’t work against all. For example, we should not treat viral infections such as colds, the flu, sore throats (unless caused by strep), most coughs, and some ear infections with antibiotics. Although antibiotics have many beneficial effects, their use has contributed to the problem of antibiotic resistance.

Antibiotic resistance is nothing to sneeze at

Antibiotic resistance is a quickly growing, extremely dangerous problem. World health leaders have described antibiotic-resistant bacteria as “nightmare bacteria” that pose a catastrophic threat to people in every country in the world. Each year in the United States, at least two million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections. Many more people die from other conditions that were complicated by an antibiotic-resistant infection.

Antibiotic resistance is the ability of bacteria or other microbes to resist the effects of an antibiotic. When bacteria are exposed to antibiotics, they start learning how to outsmart the drugs. This process occurs in bacteria found in humans, animals, and the environment. Resistant bacteria can multiply and spread easily and quickly, causing severe infections. They can also share genetic information with other bacteria, making the other bacteria resistant as well. Each time bacteria learn to outsmart an antibiotic, treatment options are more limited, and these infections pose a greater risk to human health. These antibiotic-resistant bacteria can quickly spread to family members, schoolmates and co-workers, threatening the community with a new strain of infectious disease that is more difficult to cure and more expensive to treat.

Separating myth from truth

A report from the World Health Organization (WHO) released in late 2015 reports that 64 percent of people surveyed say they know antibiotic resistance is a problem, but they are less aware of how it affects them and what they can do about it. To reach these findings, the WHO surveyed 10,000 people in 12 different countries. They found that misunderstandings of antibiotic resistance were prevalent worldwide. Here are some common misconceptions that showed up in the survey results:

  • You don’t have to take all the antibiotics you’re prescribed. Among people surveyed, 32 percent said they thought you should stop taking antibiotics when you feel better, instead of completing the prescribed treatment plan. However the truth is that taking the full dose over the prescribed time frame is what’s recommended. Not doing so means an infection might not be fully treated, and can spur antibiotic resistance.
  • Antibiotic resistance means the body no longer responds to drugs. The WHO reports that 76 percent of people surveyed said antibiotic resistance is what happens when the body becomes resistant to antibiotics, when in fact it is the bacteria that becomes resistant and spreads illness.
  • Only people who use antibiotics regularly are at a risk for antibiotic resistance. Forty-four percent of people thought this was true, but in actuality, as the WHO points out, anyone can get an infection that’s resistant to antibiotics.
  • Antibiotics can be used to treat colds and flu. We can’t use antibiotics to treat the cold or flu. These are caused by viruses, and antibiotics are used to treat bacteria. Taking antibiotics when we don’t need them can lead to resistance problems. Despite that, 64 percent of people in the survey thought you could use them for colds or the flu.
  • There’s nothing we can do to lower our risk. There are things that both the medical community and patients can do to lower the risk antibiotic-resistance. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says people should take their antibiotics exactly as the doctor prescribes them, should not share or use leftover antibiotics, should not ask for antibiotics if the doctor doesn’t think they’re necessary and should prevent infection by practicing good hygiene and getting vaccines.

So the next time you or someone you care for is sick, remember that taking antibiotics for viral infection such as colds, flu, most sore throats, bronchitis, and many sinus or ear infections will NOT cure the infection; will not keep other people from getting sick; will not help you, your partner or your child feel better; and may cause unnecessary and harmful side effects. Rest, fluids, and over-the-counter products may be your or your child’s best treatment option against viral infections.

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