Overuse of antibiotics has become a major health problem for children as well as adults. Kentucky has one of the highest rates of antibiotic use in the U.S. There are reasons why antibiotics should not be used for all illnesses. In addition, certain steps can be taken to decrease their overuse.
First of all, antibiotics work only for bacterial infections. Viruses cause a large percentage of the total number of infections, especially in children. Not all bacterial infections need to be treated all of the time, either.
Secondly, antibiotics are not without their side effects. These range from gastrointestinal upset to life-threatening severe allergic reactions such as anaphylaxis. They can also cause the overgrowth of the potentially dangerous bacterium Clostridium dificile that usually lives in the colon (which can cause severe diarrhea). Antibiotic use can also encourage the overgrowth of fungi such as yeast.
Thirdly, overuse of antibiotics can lead to antibiotic resistance in bacteria. The more they are used, the more likely the chance that some types of bacteria will learn to outsmart the antibiotics. They become resistant to them. There are types of bacteria that have become resistant to multiple families of antibiotics. If a person gets an infection with one of them, it could be difficult or impossible to treat.
There are steps that patients can take to decrease the overuse of antibiotics. They should not demand antibiotics if their healthcare providers tell them they do not need them. Since a lot of infections are viral, they may frequently not be needed.
Antibiotics should not be shared with others except in those rare emergencies where a healthcare provider advises it. They also should not be hoarded and used for a subsequent infection: this also means that the initially prescribed dose was probably not finished, which can also lead to antibiotic resistance in bacteria (more resistant bacteria are more likely to survive a shortened course of antibiotics than less resistant bacteria).
Healthcare providers and their patients are not the only ones to blame for antibiotic overuse. They are often used in large amounts to farm animals to keep them healthy. This allows for the development of resistant bacteria on an industrial scale. They can then make their way into the food supply and ultimately into us. There is a lot of blame to go around for our overuse of antibiotics, but also a lot of responsibility to do our part to stop it.
By Charles G. Ison, M.D.
**This article can also be found in the January issue of Lexington Family Magazine. **