It sounds like the plot of a sci-fi flick: Through the misuse of antibiotics and other factors, some forms of bacteria have mutated and become resistant to all known antibiotics. Coined "superbugs" by the media, these super-strength bacteria threaten to become so potent, they pose a threat to all of us. Can these fears possibly be founded?
Rising antibiotic resistance is very real, due primarily to the enormous amount of antibiotics used in this country, says Richard Besser, M.D., a medical epidemiologist and pediatrician at the National Center for Infectious Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "There are a number of studies that show previous antibiotic use as the biggest risk factor of developing a resistance to it," says Dr. Besser. "The CDC reported that one-third of the one hundred ten million antibiotic prescriptions given each year are unneeded."
Unneeded antibiotics are those prescribed for viral conditions—cold, flu, bronchitis, and some forms of pneumonia—rather than bacterial infections such as ear infections, meningitis, certain types of skin infections, and some types of pneumonia. Antibiotics kill only bacteria, not viruses.
But how can your personal prescription have global ramifications? "When you take an antibiotic, it kills all the bacteria sensitive to that antibiotic—even bacteria that are nonproblematic," explains Dr. Besser. "That gives antibiotic-resistant bacteria free reign to multiply and take over the field. You are now colonized with resistant bacteria, and if they cause a disease, they won't respond to the same antibiotic used before."
Bacteria that are resistant to one antibiotic tend to be resistant to many, thus making them is harder to fight. Super-resistant strains continue to increase rapidly. "If we could keep up with our drug development, you might say, 'Who cares?' But we're not able to keep up. Additionally, antibiotics have negative side effects. There's this idea that sterilization is the ultimate goal, but you can't really do that, and you shouldn't," says Dr. Besser. For the time being, he suggests these measures for stemming the surge of super-resistance.
1. Know Your Cold.
Antibiotics are effective against bacterial infections, not viruses. Make sure you are not taking an antibiotic for a viral condition.
2. Question authority.
If your doctor recommends an antibiotic, ask him if he's absolutely sure that you need it. If he says "no" or "I'm not sure," ask if you would be okay without it.
3. Pop them properly.
If you are prescribed antibiotics, take them for the entire time. Do not stop taking them just because you feel better. This is a dangerous practice: Some bugs can survive, breeding resistance and making you a conduit for passing those bacteria on to others.
4. Reduce your risk.
During the cold and flu season, reduce your risk of infection in the first place by washing your hands frequently. And make sure that you are properly immunized; if you are over 60 or have underlying medical problems, get flu and pneumonia shots.
5. Go OTC first.
Before turning to antibiotics, ask a doctor if over-the-counter symptomatic relievers such as Tylenol for fever, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen could do the trick.
Keep in mind, says Dr. Besser, that avoiding unnecessary antibiotics not only helps squelch the growth of the "superbug" but can also lead to a far more pleasant recuperation period.