Although many people don’t realize it, most common illnesses have no cure. Bronchitis, influenza (flu), coughs, minor stomach upsets and common colds are generally viral infections for which we don’t have an answer. Antibiotics, when prescribed to treat these ailments, don’t actually help because, by their very nature, antibiotics treat bacteria and not viruses–but worse than that, treating a virus with antibiotics can actually be extremely dangerous.
So why is that by 2010′s records, 258 million prescriptions for antibiotics have been given out in the United States, mostly for children under two. The main reason often given for this is pushy patients demanding a cure from doctors who aren’t taking the time to explain basic medical facts. Others cite lazy doctors who simply want to get patients in and out, writing prescriptions in lieu of proper medical advice.
Whatever the reason, this is a practice that we must stop now. It is dangerous, not only to the patients prescribed pointless antibiotics, but to the rest of society that can be harmed by the drug-resistant bacteria that spawns from this overuse.
Why is Using too Many Antibiotics Bad for Us?
Antibiotic resistant bacteria have made major headlines, most notably in connection with MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). According to the Mayo Clinic, “Nearly all significant bacterial infections in the world are becoming resistant to commonly used antibiotics.” So, how does this occur?
When antibiotics are used for something they do not treat (read: a viral illness) their constant presence in our bodies helps bacteria to evolve and develop new pathways for evading them. Think of these tiny microbes like armies waging a war in your gut. Some are good, some are bad, some are indifferent and they all work for and against each other in different ways.
When we take unnecessary broad-spectrum antibiotics, we wipe out entire colonies (or armies, if you will) of bacteria inside us. You might take an antibiotic that wipes out some of the good colonies, but isn’t actually strong enough to kill the bad colonies. Now you have an imbalance that not only makes bad bacteria stronger, but can truly cause you harm.
Misuse of properly prescribed antibiotics is a problem as well. Many people assume that after they start to feel better, they can forgo the rest of their course of antibiotics. However, it’s often the most tenacious bacteria that holds out until the end. As a result of stopping medication early the worst bacterium, still clinging to your gut, remains unfazed by the incomplete course of medicine and starts to develop a resistance. Then, when that bacteria leaves your body, via a cough or through your waste, it now has an opportunity to spread and proliferate. It can turn into drug-resistant TB, drug-resistant MRSA and can absolutely result in death for the person infected.
In the book Missing Microbes, Dr. Martin Blaser makes a case for the human microbiome. He argues that good and bad bacteria have lived inside humans for 100,000 years. Because we do not know exactly how these bacteria interplay, we need to stop wiping out entire colonies with broad-spectrum antibiotics.
In fact, even “bad” bacteria has its functions, Blaser argues. For instance H. Pylori, which has been linked to stomach cancer and ulcers, might be beneficial in its own ways. Studies have shown this “bad” bacteria also protects from irritable bowel disease, esophageal cancer, allergies and GERD/ Other studies found a link found between H. Pylori and a lower risk of obesity, infection and diabetes.
Blaser and his colleagues aren’t pushing for us to go au natural and shirk this kind of medical treatment where it’s warranted. Rather, a common sense approach is necessary to stop our diseases from turning into untreatable plagues. Better diagnostic tests, Blaser argues, combined with narrow-spectrum antibiotics would help us destroy harmful bacteria without wiping out the entire ecosystem in our bodies.
Most doctors agree that the germ-craze isn’t helping either. The overuse of hand sanitizer, for instance, can often kill off helpful colonies of bacteria on our hands, leaving only the strongest (and deadliest) behind. It’s not supposed to replace normal hand washing, because soap and water eliminates dangerous germs more effectively. Yet most of us slather it on without a thought about what we’re actually eliminating.
How to Cut Down on Antibiotics
The responsibility must fall equally on doctors and patients though. First, patients must recognize and accept that a viral infection, while terribly uncomfortable, cannot be cured by antibiotics (fluids and rest is what you’re after). Meanwhile, doctors need to stop handing out prescriptions just to get patients out the door.
While most of us feel awkward questioning the doctor’s advice when they hand out an antibiotic, simple questions like “Is this viral or bacterial?” and “If you don’t know, could you please run a test to confirm?” represent tiny steps toward preventing antibiotic resistance. Otherwise, if we continue to bury our heads in the sand, the simple diseases of our childhoods could soon morph in to devastating, crippling afflictions, that haunt our future.