Hands up if you have ever been prescribed and have taken a course of antibiotics. Practically everyone, right? There are in fact over 100 varying types of antibiotics and each target specific bacterial infections. They work in one of two ways, kill the offending bacteria or weaken it so the patient’s immune system can fight it off for itself. Often than not they will do the trick but sometimes they do not and if this is the case they ultimately can make you sicker.
First of all lets get this straight, antibiotics are a cost-effective drug that plays a vital role in preventing the spread of disease and minimizing complications that can arise from infections. It is estimated that antibiotics have extended life expectancy by 20 years, according to a 2014 study published in the British Journal of General Practice.
Unfortunately, as with most things in life there are potential downsides. They have become so commonplace that there are now antibiotic-resistant superbugs that do not respond to treatment. At some point or other we develop a resistance to every single antibiotic and sometimes this can develop quickly according to a 2017 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine. This problem has increased to the extent that antibiotic-resistant superbugs may kill more people than cancer in the coming decades.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that in the US alone “more than two million people are sickened every year with antibiotic-resistant infections, with at lease 23,000 dying as a result. The estimates are based on conservative assumptions and are likely minimum estimates.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) just released guidelines that provide advice on “which antibiotics to use for common infections and which to preserve for the most serious circumstances” (who.int; search “antibiotic guidelines”). The goal of these new guidelines is to “ensure that antibiotics are available when needed, and that the right antibiotics are prescribed for the right infections.”
WHO believes their guidelines will improve patient outcomes, reduce the development of drug-resistance bacteria and maintain the effectiveness of “last resort” antibiotics that are essential when all other options don’t work. For significant improvements to register, Doctors and other clinicians will have to alter their prescribing habits. Just as importantly though, we need to also take a proactive approach to understanding what ailments antibiotics can and cannot help and the risks we are taking by asking for these medicines when they are not necessary. We have to change our attitude towards doctors who will not prescribe them as unfortunately statistics show that doctors who prescribe fewer antibiotics tend to have lower patient satisfaction scores.
One of the many things we can do ourselves to prevent having to be prescribed antibiotics in the first instance is to ensure we have recommended immunizations, follow safe food-preparation guidelines and wash our hands regularly with soap and water. If you are prescribed an antibiotic, firstly ask if it is totally necessary or if it is just being prescribed as a precautionary measure. If it is the latter then ask if there are any other steps you can take and absolutely do not pressure your doctor into giving you an antibiotic, if he thinks you do not need one simply ask for advice on how you can manage your symptoms yourself.