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Antibiotics and Antibiotic Resistance

Updated on 27. Dec. 2018

Antibiotics have been used for thousands of years, scientists have found evidence of their use in ancient Roman and African civilizations. The use of antibiotics is especially prevalent in traditional medicinal practices, such as Chinese medicine where they have uses plants and plant extracts containing antimicrobials for thousands of years.

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The birth of modern antibiotics was not until the 1900’s. The first antibiotic was discovered for the treatment of syphilis in 1909, which was a huge problem at the time, but it was not until the 1940’s that antibiotics were commercialized. This is when penicillin, discovered in 1928, was used to treat infections and then went on to become the ‘wonder drug’ of World War II where it was used to treat the allied forces. From then on, penicillin was widely used to treat infections and led to the discovery of more antibiotics.


Antibiotics (sometimes called antimicrobials) are used to fight bacterial, and sometimes parasitic and fungal, infections. Antibiotics are not effective in the treatment of viral infections, which include bronchitis, colds, the flu, and non-strep related sore throats or coughs.


While antibiotics are an effective way to fight illnesses and infections caused by bacteria, their overuse and misuse are leading to antibiotic resistance. This is when bacteria becomes resistant to antibiotics. These antibiotic-resistant bacteria can sometimes be treated using a different form of antibiotic, but in some cases, they become completely resistant to antibiotics, such as is the case with MRSA.


Antibiotic overuse is largely due to the fact that doctors are overprescribing or misprescribing them. This is either caused by a patient insisting they need antibiotics for their ailment, or the doctor not looking at the problem enough to fully understand the proper treatment. The other problem causing antibiotic resistance is people who do not use antibiotics properly. This can be from not finishing the full cycle (sometimes when people feel better they stop the medicine), using leftover antibiotics from another illness, or taking antibiotics from another person’s prescription. When you do not take your full cycle of antibiotics, the bacteria they were intended to fend off do not die fully, they can then come back and re-infect you or become resistant to the antibiotics. These bacteria then reproduce and pass their resistance along to the new bacteria, or even to surrounding bacteria.


Now, all of this does not mean that you should stop taking antibiotics. If you have a bacterial infection, they are the most effective way of treating it and antibiotic resistance is normal. The problem is that overuse and misuse of antibiotics speed up the process by which bacteria becomes resistant. An additional $20 billion in healthcare costs per year is due to antibiotic resistance.1 These costs are incurred through the treatment of what are, in most cases, preventable diseases.


Human use is not the only place where antibiotic resistance has become a problem. Farmers who raise animals for food have long been using antibiotics as a way to promote the growth of their livestock. In addition, the crowded areas where animals are now raised for food are breeding grounds for bacteria and infections, meaning that farmers are using more and more antibiotics to treat and prevent illness among their herd. Just as is the case in humans, this overuse and misuse of antibiotics are leading to resistant strains.


The antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria found in feed animals can be passed along to humans through the handling and consumption of the meat or animal by-products. This is why it is so important to properly handle meat, wash your hands after handling, and fully cook the meat before consuming. All of these precautions can help you prevent the chance of becoming infected with a bacterial infection from the meat you eat. It is also a good idea to purchase meat and animal products that are raised without the use of antibiotics.


While people are becoming more aware of the antibiotics that are used to treat feed animals, the FDA is still not setting hard standards for their use. In most cases, the FDA only makes recommendations about how and when antibiotics should be used but does not regulate their use.


Another area of concern for antibiotic resistance is antibacterial soaps. These soaps contain a chemical called triclosan. There is no evidence showing that triclosan is harmful to humans and in some applications it is proven to be beneficial. Triclosan is found in many consumer products, ranging from clothing to toothpaste, but it is only of particular concern in hand soap. This is because triclosan has been shown to cause an increase in antibiotic resistance. In addition, there is no proof that it is more effective at killing harmful bacteria than regular soap and water.


There are some who claim that hand sanitizers have the same effect as antibacterial soaps, this is however not the case unless the hand sanitizer you are using contains triclosan. Most hand sanitizers are made up primarily of alcohol, which is effective in killing germs and bacteria without increasing antibiotic resistance.


Antibiotics are still and will continue to be an effective way to treat bacterial, fungal and parasitic infections and are life-saving in many situations, however, their overuse and misuse are rapidly increasing the formation of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. These bacteria can have costly and sometimes tragic consequences. To help protect yourself, only take antibiotics when you have an infection that requires their use. Do not pressure your doctor to give you antibiotics for things like the common cold or flu, and alternately if your doctor prescribes you antibiotics and you feel that is not the correct course of treatment ask your doctor to explain their prescription and why it will be effective for treatment. The best thing to keep in mind is to practice antibiotic stewardship, which is the correct and appropriate use of antibiotics.


1.  “Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2013.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2013. Web.

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