Antibiotics have been considered a miracle drug since their discovery in the early 20th century. These drugs revolutionized medicine, helping cure many bacterial infections that were once life-threatening, such as pneumonia, meningitis, and tuberculosis.
However, with each passing year, antibiotic resistance has become an increasingly severe threat to global health. Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria evolve to become resistant to antibiotics, making it harder to treat bacterial infections.
One of the main reasons for the development of antibiotic resistance is the overuse and misuse of antibiotics. Taking antibiotics when they are not necessary or not completing an antibiotic course as prescribed are common reasons why bacteria become resistant.
In this article, we will discuss how taking antibiotics can contribute to antibiotic resistance, the effects of antibiotic resistance on public health, and ways to reduce the development of antibiotic resistance.
How Antibiotics Work
Before discussing how antibiotics contribute to antibiotic resistance, it is essential to understand how they work.
Antibiotics are drugs that kill or prevent the growth of bacteria. There are two main types of antibiotics: bacteriostatic and bactericidal.
Bacteriostatic antibiotics prevent bacteria from reproducing, allowing the body’s immune system to fight off the infection. Bactericidal antibiotics kill bacteria directly by targeting their cell wall, DNA synthesis, or other crucial cell components.
Once an antibiotic is ingested or administered, it travels through the bloodstream and reaches the site of infection. The antibiotic then binds to the bacteria’s specific target, either killing the bacteria or stopping its growth.
Antibiotics and Antibiotic Resistance
Antibiotic resistance arises when bacteria develop a mechanism to protect themselves from antibiotics. The bacteria may produce enzymes that break down the antibiotics, change their cell wall, or mutate their genes and become resistant.
Bacteria have developed resistance to every antibiotic that has ever been developed, and the misuse and overuse of antibiotics only speed up this process.
When antibiotics kill susceptible bacteria, they leave behind bacteria that are already resistant, enabling them to multiply unchecked. Also, when people do not take antibiotics appropriately — for example, taking them for viral infections — they provide an environment for resistant bacteria to grow.
How Taking Antibiotics Contributes to Antibiotic Resistance
Here are some ways taking antibiotics can contribute to antibiotic resistance:
1. Disrupting the Body’s Natural Microbiome
The human body is full of microorganisms that make up the microbiome, a vital part of the immune system. These microorganisms protect the body from infections, and they are also an important part of digestion, metabolism, and other functions.
However, antibiotics are not selective in the bacteria they kill. They can also kill the beneficial bacteria that make up the microbiome. When beneficial bacteria are killed, resistant bacteria are left to reproduce and take over the microbiome, increasing the risk of infections from antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
2. Overuse and Misuse of Antibiotics
The overuse and misuse of antibiotics contribute to antibiotic resistance. This includes taking antibiotics when they are not needed or using antibiotics as a first-line treatment for conditions that do not require them.
One of the most prominent examples of antibiotic overuse is the use of antibiotics for viral infections. Antibiotics only work against bacteria, not viruses, so taking antibiotics for colds, flu, and other viral infections will not help and may even be harmful.
3. Not Completing the Full Antibiotic Course
Doctors often prescribe antibiotics for a specific period, and the instructions usually say to continue taking them even after the symptoms have disappeared. This is because antibiotics need to be taken for the full course to ensure that all the bacteria are killed.
If people stop taking antibiotics when they feel better or save them for later use, they leave behind a small number of bacteria that are resistant to the antibiotics. These bacteria can multiply, making it harder to treat infections in the future.
4. Using Antibiotics in Animal Agriculture
Antibiotics are commonly used in animal agriculture to prevent and treat infections in animals raised for food. This is a significant contributing factor to antibiotic resistance, as the resistant bacteria can spread to humans through food and water.
When animals are given antibiotics, they may become carriers of the resistant bacteria. These bacteria can survive the slaughter and meat processing, and end up on the dinner plate.
The Effects of Antibiotic Resistance on Public Health
Antibiotic resistance poses a significant threat to public health, making it harder to treat bacterial infections. Resistant infections are more likely to be severe, have longer hospital stays, and require more expensive treatments.
In severe cases, antibiotic resistance can lead to death. According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at least 2.8 million people are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year in the United States, and more than 35,000 die as a result.
Antibiotic resistance also has economic implications. The cost of treating resistant infections is higher than non-resistant infections, and it is estimated that antibiotic resistance will cost the global economy $100 trillion by 2050.
Ways to Reduce the Development of Antibiotic Resistance
Reducing the development of antibiotic resistance requires a multifaceted approach that involves individuals, healthcare professionals, policymakers, and the animal agriculture industry. Here are some ways to reduce the development of antibiotic resistance:
1. Only Use Antibiotics When Needed
Antibiotics should only be used when necessary and as prescribed by a healthcare professional. Do not insist on antibiotics for viral infections, and do not pressure healthcare professionals to prescribe them.
2. Complete the Full Antibiotic Course
Make sure to complete the full course of antibiotics as prescribed, even if the symptoms disappear. Do not stop taking antibiotics early or save them for later.
3. Properly Store and Dispose of Antibiotics
Store antibiotics in a cool, dry place, and dispose of unused antibiotics according to your local regulations. Do not flush antibiotics down the toilet or dispose of them in the trash.
4. Practice Good Hygiene
Practising good hygiene, such as hand hygiene, is essential in preventing the spread of infections. When travelling, avoid eating undercooked meat, and drink only bottled water.
5. Limit Antibiotic Use in Animal Agriculture
Governments and the agricultural industry should limit the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture. This includes using antibiotics only when necessary, using them under veterinary supervision, and banning the use of antibiotics for growth promotion.
Antibiotic resistance is an urgent public health problem, and taking antibiotics when not necessary or using them improperly contributes to the development of resistance.
People can take measures to reduce the development of antibiotic resistance by using antibiotics only when needed, completing the full course as prescribed, practising good hygiene, and properly storing and disposing of antibiotics. Reducing antibiotic use in animal agriculture and promoting responsible use can also help reduce antibiotic resistance.