The Overuse of Antibiotics

By Marlena Norwood

Most people have taken an antibiotic to rid their body of a pesky bacterial infection. What if suddenly our cherished antibiotics were no longer effective? Those pesky bacterial infections could develop into life-threatening conditions.

When an antibiotic is used to fight off bacteria, that bacterium evolves over time to become resistant – a natural result of its survival instinct. However, with overuse and misuse of antibiotics, that evolution becomes rapid, creating incredibly scary strains of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria – and we are left with no antibiotic that can fight it off. The unsustainable use of antibiotics is currently happening on a global scale.

Why are we constantly overusing and misusing antibiotics? First, many patients don’t understand the difference between a viral infection and a bacterial infection. According to the American College of Physicians, about half of all antibiotics prescribed by doctors are prescribed for viral infections, which antibiotics don’t even touch. Any bacteria in the patient’s body now have the opportunity to evolve into a resistant and potentially dangerous strain.

Another area in which antibiotics are grossly overused is in industrial agriculture. Livestock are pumped with antibiotics to increase the muscle mass of the animal. More meat may sound tempting, but it comes at a price. Those unnecessary antibiotics fed daily to livestock transfer to the consumer with every bite.

doctor for antibiotics

The World Health Organization lists six reasons antimicrobial resistance is a major concern for us all – most alarming is that it limits the control of infectious diseases, threatening to send us back in time to when we were at the mercy of devastating bacterial plagues.

Unfortunately, that’s a current reality with tuberculosis. Not only are there strains of multi-drug-resistant TB, and extremely drug-resistant TB, but also totally drug-resistant TB. If we want our health to move forward, not backward, a collective shift in our perceptions and practices as a global population is absolutely necessary.

Paul Pottinger, a professor in Infectious Disease Medicine at the University of Washington, believes there is a way to sustainably slow the emergence of antimicrobial-resistant strains. As a physician, Pottinger advocates for the constant development of new strains of antibiotics to fight off dangerous bacteria. However, he stresses that the key is to use these new antibiotics and the ones currently on the market very prudently so that they do not rapidly become ineffective. In this way, we can sustain the necessary use of antibiotics, without unnecessarily endangering human health.

Here’s what you can do as a patient and as a consumer:

  • Understand the difference between a bacterial infection and a viral infection before you ask for antibiotics
  • The next time your doctor wants to prescribe antibiotics, make sure that he/she has done thorough diagnostic testing to confirm that the infection is bacterial
  • Eat less meat
  • When you do eat meat, make an effort to eat meat raised without the use of antibiotics
  • Spread the word about antibiotic overuse to friends and family, so they can limit their antibiotic use as well
  • Check out the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics (APUA) website