When it comes to antibiotics, it is possible to have too much of a good thing.
Over the past century, antibiotics have saved countless lives and resulted in substantial decreases in mortality rates for many types of infectious disease. Before antibiotics, 90% of children with bacterial meningitis died, strep throat was often a fatal disease, and ear infections sometimes spread from the ear to the brain, causing severe problems. Even today, these powerful medicines play a vital role in modern health care.
But now their effectiveness is at risk.
The culprit? Overuse (when the body can heal on its own) and misuse (when the medicine is used against a viral illness). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate more than half the antibiotics used in the United States are prescribed unnecessarily or used improperly.
The emergence of "superbugs":
Antibiotic overuse is leading to the emergence of antibiotic resistance, a phenomenon which threatens the effectiveness of the medicine.
This is because the more antibiotics are used, the faster superbugs resistant to them can develop. However, limiting antibiotic use to appropriate conditions will slow the development of superbugs and allow the antibiotics to maintain their strength against bacterial infection.
Antibiotic overuse can also make patients more vulnerable to other types of infections, such as a bacterial infection called Clostridium difficile.
While caregivers strive to be careful stewards of antibiotics, community education and awareness is also at the center of this issue.
"Often patients came to their provider to request, sometimes insistently, an antibiotic prescription because they believe it will relieve all types of ailments, including conditions that won't even respond to antibiotics," said Gabrielle Rude, Director of Quality Management. "However, there is a cost to using antibiotics unnecessarily. Increased awareness of this problem will allow patients and caregivers to partner in the effort to protect the effectiveness of antibiotics and our health in general."
Take action against overuse:
The Centers for Disease Control is spreading the word and encouraging the population to "get smart about when antibiotics are needed—to fight bacterial infections... When you use antibiotics appropriately, you do the best for your health, your family's health, and the health of those around you."
Get Smart About Antibiotics
The CDC cautions that taking antibiotics for viral infections, 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 or your child feel better
May cause unnecessary and harmful side effects
May contribute to antibiotic resistance, which is when bacteria are able to resist the effects of an antibiotic and continue to cause harm
The CDC recommends patients talk with their health care providers about the best treatment for illness and suggests the following for viral infections:
Ask your healthcare professional about over-the-counter treatment options that may help reduce symptoms.
Drink more fluids.
Get plenty of rest.
Use a cool-mist vaporizer or saline nasal spray to relieve congestion.
Soothe your throat with crushed ice, sore throat spray, or lozenges. (Do not give lozenges to young children.)
If you are diagnosed with the flu, there are prescription antiviral drugs that can be used to treat flu illness.
"Patients should discuss all treatment options and concerns with their provider, but in doing so, it's important to understand the limitations of antibiotics and the benefits of appropriate use," said Rude. "In cases where antibiotics are not the recommended treatment, the provider can offer alternative options for symptom relief and recovery."