Antibiotics saved many lives and revolutionized medicine following their introduction in the 1940s because they provided a means of treating many infections and diseases, including serious infections, caused by bacteria.
What are antibiotics?
Antibiotics damage bacteria so the body’s immune system can fight them. They do not work against viruses.
Different antibiotics work against different bacteria. Sometimes, doctors will perform tests to work out which bacteria are causing the infection, and which antibiotics are likely to be effective against them. At other times, doctors choose an antibiotic based on what they believe will work.
Many antibiotics are less effective than they once were due to bacteria becoming resistive to their effects. When this happens the antibiotic no longer works. This is called antibiotic resistance and is a serious global problem.
Why is antibiotic resistance a problem?
Antibiotic resistance happens when bacteria survive and continue causing infection despite treatment with an antibiotic because the bacteria are no longer sensitive to that antibiotic.
If the antibiotic no longer works against the resistant bacteria:
- infections can get worse and lead to more serious problems
- infections take longer to heal
- because bacteria are resistant infections are more likely to spread to other people and the antibiotic may not work for other people, further spreading the problem.
People might think it is best to use another antibiotic, one that bacteria aren’t resistant to. But another antibiotic may not work as well and cause more side effects, also bacteria may become resistant to this other antibiotic too.
Because of these reasons, antibiotic resistance is a major threat to human health. There is concern that in time, there’ll be bacterial infections that just can’t be treated.
How do bacteria develop antibiotic resistance?
After being exposed to an antibiotic, bacteria can change their genes. This allows them to survive antibiotic treatment. Antibiotic resistance develops when they multiply, they make more resistant bacteria.
What are superbugs?
Superbugs are bacteria that are difficult to treat because they are resistant to several different antibiotics, especially those that treat other resistant bacteria.
Superbugs like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and multi-drug-resistant strains of Escherichia coli (E. coli) are becoming more common and can be a real problem in hospitals.
What causes antibiotic resistance?
The more bacteria are exposed to antibiotics, the more chances they have to change and become resistant. When you use antibiotics when not needed or don’t take antibiotics properly like not completing the course or missing doses, you give bacteria opportunities to become resistant.
How can you help prevent antibiotic resistance?
Antibiotic resistance can’t be totally stopped, but it can be slowed down by properly using antibiotics. You can help by:
- having good hygiene practices to avoid spreading infections
- not taking antibiotics for a cold or the flu, including a cough and sore throat because viruses cause most colds, and antibiotics don’t work against viruses
- telling your doctor, you only want antibiotics when necessary, such as for serious bacterial infections such as pneumonia
- taking your antibiotic as prescribed, and completing the full course
- never taking antibiotics prescribed for someone else
- never saving antibiotics for the next time you are sick.