Too many antibiotics
Doctors prescribe more than 100 million courses of antibiotics each year. Most of those are unnecessary because they were prescribed for colds, coughs, and other viral infections not treatable with antibiotics.
Overuse of antibiotics can cause antibiotic resistance. That means antibiotics taken to treat an infection won't kill the bacteria that caused it.
"Many patients feel like they only get their money's worth from a physician visit by getting a prescription for antibiotics," says Claire Pomeroy, M.D., professor of medicine in the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, and chief of the division of infectious disease at the UK Chandler Medical Center.
Overuse of antibiotics isn't the only cause of antibiotic resistance. The body can become resistant to antibiotics if a patient fails to take the entire prescription, or course, when symptoms improve. When antibiotics are discontinued too soon, the organism remains in the body and can become resistant to the drug.
Is it bacterial or viral?
Antibiotics are prescribed to treat infections caused by bacteria. Bacteria, which are microscopic, single-cell organisms, swarm on inanimate surfaces and on parts of the body, including the skin, the mucous membranes, and the lining of the intestinal tract.
It can be difficult for some patients to determine whether their infection is bacterial or viral because the symptoms are so similar. When some people are sick, they think antibiotics are the answer and pressure the doctor into prescribing antibiotics even when their infection is viral.
"For most illnesses caused by viruses, symptomatic relief is the best therapy. This includes resting, eating well, and reducing stress," Pomeroy says.
Some diseases that are becoming-or already are-antibiotic-resistant include tuberculosis, respiratory tract infections, and sexually transmitted diseases.
Hospitalized patients particularly are susceptible to infection because they often have weakened immune systems. Hospitalized patients also receive the highest doses of antibiotics, creating ideal conditions for resistant bacterial strains to emerge and flourish.
Children are also susceptible to antibiotic resistance because they often receive antibiotics for recurrent ear infections. Although some ear infections are viral, many ear infections are caused by a bacteria called pneumococcus. More oral antibiotics are now prescribed for ear infections in children than for any other problem.
Some ways scientists are trying to prevent antibiotic resistance include: detecting new strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, using antibiotics responsibly, finding better vaccines for preventing infections, and developing new antibiotics.
Antibiotics don't help flu
With flu season under way, be aware of the symptoms that commonly are mistaken for bacterial infections. Of those who contract influenza, 60 percent are misdiagnosed with sinusitis, pharyngitis, or bronchitis, and are prescribed antibiotics.
Some of the symptoms of influenza are: fever over 102 degrees in adults and 104 degrees in children, and a cough that starts as dry and hacking and progresses to wet with thick mucous. Headaches, muscle aches, sore throat, and red eyes are also signs of influenza.
The best way to prevent influenza is to get vaccinated, Pomeroy says. This will reduce the risk of prescribing unnecessary antibiotics.
"There are many ways to reverse this emerging problem. If people don't realize the threat of antibiotic resistance, bacterial infections like tuberculosis and pneumonia that are treated with antibiotics could become impossible to treat," Pomeroy says.
How you can help keep antibiotics effective
You can combat the growing problem of antibiotic-resistant microbes by:
· Taking the full course of any antibiotic as directed by the physician
· Learning what diseases antibiotics can and cannot treat
· Throwing out old bottles of antibiotics so the next time symptoms strike you won't be tempted to take your leftover weak and ineffective pills
· Getting vaccinated, preventing infections in the first place
· Washing your hands, preventing the spread of diseases