By Vicki Santillano, DivineCaroline
In the 1930s, a discovery was made that changed the medical world and our entire lives as a result. Sulfa drugs were unleashed as successful combatants against harmful bacteria, and the following decade, penicillin was developed to do the same. With these power antibiotics at their disposal, doctors were able to treat illnesses that had previously confounded them.
Fast-forward to many years later, when antibiotics of all kinds are now the go-to prescription for just about every illness. At this point, our reliance on them is more like abuse. Antibiotics are used all too commonly–most egregiously, for diseases they can’t even treat–and that’s resulting in their overall ineffectiveness. Not only does such frequent pill popping cause relatively unknown side effects, but it can become deadly on a global level if it continues unabated.
What They’re Really Good For
Antibiotics have prevented countless deaths since their creation, but even too much of a good thing can have disastrous results. The worst part is that most people, including some in the medical industry, aren’t fully aware of the problem. In March 2009, pharmacies around the U.S. gave away free antibiotics to promote health in cash-strapped times. Luckily, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stepped in and advised people against treating antibiotics like all-purpose medicine or, even worse, taking them like multivitamins.
Therein lies the biggest problem with antibiotics overuse–people think of them as wonder drugs that can heal anything. But they’re effective only against bacteria, so if someone has an ear infection, tuberculosis, or other bacterial infection, an antibiotic prescription makes sense. Antibiotics don’t have any effect on viral illnesses, which include colds and flu.
Unfortunately, this fact has been lost in a sea of misinformation. A survey that Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network conducted from 1998 to 1999 found that 32 percent of the population believed antibiotics should be taken for colds. Over half of those surveyed were unaware of any potential risks associated with them. But consumers aren’t the only ones perpetuating the myth–in 2001, over 31 percent of antibiotic prescriptions were for colds or sore throats.
A Newly Discovered Side Effect
Taking antibiotics isn’t always an easy process, especially for those especially sensitive to medication. Feeling nauseated or actually throwing up is fairly common when someone’s taking the pills, as are diarrhea and skin issues. Kidney stone development, an increased reaction to sunlight, and blood clot formations are much rarer but can occur, depending on the type of antibiotic prescribed. But a recent study suggests that there are even more dangerous side effects to worry about.
The study, sponsored by the CDC and published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, targeted a group of pregnant women. Researchers found that those with babies who had birth defects had a higher incidence of taking two types of antibiotics (sulfa drugs and nitrofurantoins) for urinary tract infections than mothers with unaffected babies did. The mothers taking sulfa drugs tended to have babies with weak hearts and brain illnesses, as well as smaller-than-average arms and legs. Nitrofurantoins were linked to heart issues and cleft palates.
When Medicine Gets Deadly
Even if the really serious side effects are isolated to small parts of the population, antibiotics’ increasing ineffectiveness is a problem that impacts all of us. Antibiotics work by flushing out all bacteria–including the good kind that keeps us healthy, which is another big problem–out of our systems to get rid of the infection. But when they don’t eradicate all of the bad kind, it results in hyper-resistant bacteria that require a stronger form of antibiotics. These superbugs leave scientists scrambling to create new and more potent treatments, but the overuse of antibiotics leaves them with very little to work with anymore. Now there are a multitude of bacterial strains that no existing antibiotic can treat. It’s such a widespread problem that Dr. Perry Hookman, a gastroenterologist who teaches at the University of Miami, called it a “global threat” in an interview with The New York Times.
Clostridium difficile, or C. difficile, is an example of this issue. The rates of C. difficile, once confined mostly to hospitals and other health care facilities, have risen drastically this decade, and the strain’s deadlier than ever. It’s actually brought on in part by antibiotic use–the drugs kill off the beneficial bacteria in our guts, making way for C. difficile to take root. Even after treatment–which is another round of antibiotics–some patients continue showing symptoms. An estimated 20 percent of affected people will get sick all over again later.
The Global Implications
The indiscriminate use of antibiotics extends beyond humans–they’re even used to treat and prevent diseases in animals. So even if we use antibiotics wisely, there’s a chance we’ll still be overexposed if we consume animal products. The best course of action is education. People need to learn not only about what antibiotics can and can’t do, but about alternative treatments as well. If we keep abusing antibiotics, eventually we’ll be out of solutions for all bacterial infections, and then a cold or a sore throat will be the least of our worries.
This doesn’t mean that antibiotics don’t have their place in medicine; in some cases, their improvement to our well-being has been immeasurable. But in order to keep it that way, we need to understand and respect their limits. As the old saying goes, everything in moderation–even when it’s something as helpful as medicine.