Overuse of Antibiotics Is a Real Health Threat: What You Need to Know

woman getting prescription pharmacyWhile we passionately debate vaccines and GMOs in our food, another threat to our health is looming big, and it can look as innocuous as a regular prescription from your doctor. There's been quite a bit of chatter about a public health threat stemming from the overuse of antibiotics, but now public health officials are weighing in.


In newly published research, the CDC noted that overuse of antibiotics has made Americans more vulnerable to a strain of bacteria that caused nearly half a million infections and contributed to at least 29,000 deaths in a single year. Scary doesn't begin to cover what that is!

But it's also not a huge surprise. In late 2014, a study released by Consumer Reports found 100 percent of doctors are concerned about the growth of multi-drug resistant infections from the overuse of antibiotics.

But what do we really need to know to protect our own health and that of others? Here, seven facts about antibiotic overuse -- why it matters and what we can do about it.

More from The Stir: Rare Superbug Spreading Fast & Antibiotics May Not Save Us This Time

1. Antibiotics aren't a cold cure. Although some doctors prescribe and some patients request antibiotics for the common cold, that's not what they're meant for. You don't need antibiotics for viral infections -- only bacterial infections, notes Jeremy J. Corbett, MD, Chief Health Officer of Nurtur.

"For the most part, flu, most colds, sore throats, most ear infections, some respiratory infections, and sinus-related illnesses are all viral," Dr. Corbett explains. "Granted, some might be bacterially-related, but most will go away on their own." Viruses are called "self-limiting," because a patient's own immue system should be able to fight them off.

So when it comes to taking unnecessary antibiotics, Corbett advises, "Your doctor will have the best diagnosis, but it might be best to see if the infection clears up on its own first." (Cold symptoms usually start about 2 or 3 days after you came in contact with the virus, and most colds usually last for about a week but some could take as long as two weeks to resolve.)

2. When in doubt, it's best to test for a bacterial cause. "Antibiotics might be necessary if there’s green or yellow mucus, white spots on tonsils, a high fever involved, symptoms are severe, symptoms return, or if they prolong more than a week," says Dr. Corbett. "Even in these instances, the only way to be sure these are bacterial are with a culture."

3. Taking an antibiotic should be your last resort. "For me, in many cases writing a prescription for an antibiotic is more harmful than not," says Dr. Corbett. That's because an antibiotic clears out not only bad bacteria but the good bacteria, too, which can boost your risk for adverse reactions such as diarrhea and yeast infections.

"There’s also the overall idea of bacterial resistance, where the more antibiotics used for infections, the harder it becomes to treat those same infections in the future," notes Dr. Corbett. "So, if you wrongly use antibiotics for a viral infection, it will be harder to get rid of an infection that actually needs antibiotics."

4. And you'll do well to steer clear of antibacterial ingredients in your personal care products. Using soap to wash hands is more effective than using water alone because the surfactants in soap lift dirt and microbes from skin, plus people tend to scrub hands more thoroughly when using soap, which further removes germs, notes the CDC. However, there's no research that supports an added health benefit for using soaps that contain antibacterial ingredients (like triclosan).

What's more, a link between antibacterial chemicals in personal care products and bacterial resistance has been shown in vitro studies (in a controlled environment). 

5. Buying organic meat has its benefits, too. Ninety-three percent of doctors surveyed in the Consumer Reports study said that they were worried about the use of antibiotics in livestock; around 80 percent of antibiotics in the United States are fed to animals being raised for food. These antibiotics have been linked to drug-resistant infections in humans. And yet, the Food and Drug Administration has reviewed fewer than 10 percent of the antibiotics used in animals for their risk of creating drug-resistant “superbugs.”

But you can rest assured that meat or poultry labeled "USDA Organic" comes from animals that never have been given any antibiotics. Here's the scoop on any other labels.

6. The higher antibiotic overuse, the higher the risk "superbugs" will spread. "For instance, we didn’t have MRSA (Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus) before we started over prescribing antibiotics for infections that didn’t require them,” explains Dr. Corbett. “It’s a super strain of staph bacteria infection, and now, we have to treat it with even harsher antibiotics.”

Similarly, a new strain of the bacterium Clostridium difficle (C. difficle), which can cause intestinal swelling and irritation in people taking antibiotics for other conditions, has popped up. The new strain is much more difficult to treat and is associated with a higher death rate.

7. Antibiotic-resistant bugs present a public health threat. Think how easy it is for a run-of-the-mill cold bug to make its way around your home, office, or child's daycare. Now, imagine if it was a superbug that required more serious, expensive treatment. If we're all more scrupulous about when and how we use antibiotics, we lower the risk of our entire community being affected in this way. 

How do you feel about antibiotics? Are you concerned about the spread of antibiotic-resistance bugs?

Image via iStock.com/stevecoleimages

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