Antibiotics are so common now; it is hard to imagine that they have only been around in their modern form for less than a hundred years! In the 1870’s scientists discovered naturally occurring chemicals that could inhibit or kill bacteria, but it was not until the 1930’s that there was a commercially available product. And, it was not until 1942 that the famous lifesaver penicillin was actually produced. Even then, it took quite a while before medical science recognized what a revolutionary tool antibiotics were; they have been a mainstay in healthcare ever since.
But can too much of a good thing be bad? Inappropriate use of antibiotics has allowed the emergence of resistant or ”super” bugs, which cause infections that routine antibiotics are useless to cure. To save ourselves, we must remember “less is more”—for us to maintain the utility of antibiotics, they must be used sparingly.
Antibiotic resistance is now a major health problem —but why? Ideally, a course of antibiotics kills almost all of the bacteria causing a person’s infection, and then the body’s own potent immune system finishes off the surviving stragglers with ease. But if the antibiotics do not destroy the majority of the infectors, the remaining cells can quickly become resistant by incorporating the “superbug” DNA. Then antibiotics won’t work and your immune system may be overpowered. That is why it’s crucial to take antibiotics as prescribed and to finish all of them. While the cost and inconvenience of seeing a doctor makes it temping to put some pills aside to use another time, this will increase your likelihood of suffering with an infection resistant to medical therapy later on!
The health problem of resistant bacteria is felt to be the result of improper antibiotic use, but patients are not solely to blame. Physicians or their assistants sometimes allow themselves to be pressured by time or patient expectations and prescribe antibiotics when a bacterial process is not deemed likely. They thus risk breaking a prime directive of healthcare: above all, do no harm. Administering antibacterials in such situations exposes individuals to potentially dangerous allergic problems or toxic interactions with other medicines. This is why antibiotics are not used for viral infections, such as the common cold—they are ineffective and may actually worsen the situation! Healthcare providers and patients alike must learn to say “no” when antibiotics are not truly needed.
Many people assume their doctor’s office is the only place they get antibiotics! But amazingly, it is estimated that over 70% of antibiotics used in this country make their way into our bodies via food, as they are given to many non-ill farm animals to prevent illnesses associated with their crowded living conditions. It is felt that this frequent low dose exposure to antibiotics is a major mechanism for known human killers, such as e.coli and staph bacteria, to “learn” how to tolerate or disable antibiotics.
Unfortunately, while there is an active campaign in the field of medicine to limit antibiotic use, there is no similar movement in the corporate agricultural world. The major way individuals can protect themselves from this harmful type of antibiotic exposure is to limit intake of non-organic animal products. Hopefully widespread recognition of this important issue will prompt the FDA to regulate this critical example of antibiotic misuse.
Antibiotics have prevented countless deaths by thwarting destructive bacterial infections, but they have the potential to nurture the evolution of even more powerful and dangerous organisms. Everyone should be aware of this problem, and do what they can to halt its progression. Our lives may depend on it!