The risks of antibiotic overuse

Antibiotics are extremely important in the modern medical system. Sadly, they are also overused and misused, which is problematic for several different reasons – including the risk of developing antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Antibiotic resistance in bacteria is already a major issue in many parts of the world, and many bacteria that used to be easy to treat now require a complicated regime of multiple antibiotics, higher doses and/or longer treatments. This, in turn, increases the risk of serious side effects from the antibiotics and also makes the disease more difficult and expensive to treat. It can be very tempting for a patient to simply stop the treatment when they no longer notice any symptoms of the disease and the antibiotics themselves are causing a long host of issues or being very expensive for the patient to procure.


Antibiotic resistance

  • Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is the ability of a microbe to resist the effects of medication.
  • Antibiotic resistance is a subset of AMR and denotes a bacterium’s ability to withstand an antibiotic medication that used to be able to successfully treat the bacterium.
  • Microbes (such as bacteria) that have become resistant to multiple antimicrobials (such as antibiotics) are called multidrug-resistant (MDR) microbes. If they are extensively drug-resistant they are labelled XDR, while the label TDR is reserved for the totally drug-resistant ones (“the superbugs”).
  • The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is calling the increased antibiotic resistance in pathogens “one of the world’s most pressing public health problems.”

Antibiotics don´t kill viruses – so stop taking them to treat viral infections!

Antibiotics are great for treating infections caused by bacteria, but they don´t kill viruses. Unfortunately, bacteria and viruses can cause diseases with similar symptoms, e.g. a sore throat.

Strep throat is one example of a throat infection caused by bacteria. However, studies show that most patients that come to the doctor with a sore throat turn out to have an illness caused by viruses or something else that antibiotics can´t fix. Despite this, many people will go to the doctor with a sore throat and expect and demand antibiotics. Regrettably, there are many doctors who prescribe antibiotics without actually knowing for sure that the sore throat is caused by bacteria.

Naturally, there are cases where it makes total sense for a doctor to prescribe antibiotics without waiting for test results. If the patient is in serious condition and the symptoms indicate that a bacterial infection is likely, there might simply be too risky to wait for the test results to come in.

Regrettably, there are also many parts of the world where doctors still lack access to quick diagnostic tools and tests to identify bacterial infections. Without these, it can be difficult even for a trained and experienced medical professional to distinguish bacterial infections from other infections, and antibiotics can be prescribed “just in case”.

Self-diagnosing and self-medicating

In some countries, it is easy to (legally or illegally) purchase antibiotics without a prescription, so people with a sore throat, or any other symptom, can get their hands on antibiotics without even seeing a medical professional. This contributes to the problems with antibiotic overuse.

What can I do?

  • Limit your use of antibiotics to situations where the disease is actually caused by bacteria and the situation is serious enough to warrant the use of antibiotics. Not all bacterial infections need to be treated with antibiotics.
  • Instead of pressuring for antibiotics, ask for a test to find out why you are ill. Be willing to go without antibiotics until the test comes back (unless you are seriously ill and the doctor decides to put you on antibiotics because waiting is too risky).
  • When discussing treatment options with your doctor, get their opinion about treating the infection locally instead of systemically (the whole body). When you take oral antibiotics or get antibiotic injections, all the bacteria in your whole body can become exposed to the antibiotics. If you instead use an antibiotic cream, antibiotic mouth wash or similar, the exposed area will be much smaller.
  • Adhere to a healthy lifestyle that boosts your immune system and makes you less likely to fall ill when subjected to bacteria.
  • Practice correct hygiene routines, including frequent and thorough hand-washing.
  • Many potentially serious bacterial infections can be prevented by vaccines. By making sure that you are up to date on the recommended vaccines, you can reduce your risk of needing antibiotic treatment.
  • When prescribed antibiotics, take them for the full amount of time prescribed by the doctor, even if your symptoms go away earlier. Otherwise, the infection may come back, and you might end up on antibiotics for an even longer period of time.
  • Don´t save unused antibiotics “for next time”.
  • Only use antibiotics prescribed for you.
  • Talk to the people around you about these issues to raise awareness and help prevent antibiotic resistance from growing in your community.