What is Antibiotic Resistance?

Wednesday 2 September 2020
5 minute(s) read

Table of Contents

I. What is Antibiotic Resistance?

II. How do Bacteria Become Antibiotic-Resistant?

III. What Are Antibiotics Prescribed For?

a. When Should Antibiotics be Used?

b. What do Antibiotics Not Treat?

IV. How Can You Help?

a. Keeping Healthy

b. Following Your Doctor’s Directions

What is Antibiotic Resistance?

Antibiotics are a very effective way of treating infections. They are commonly prescribed and approximately 80 percent of Americans have used antibiotics to treat an infection. [1] Medications such as Augmentin (amoxicillin/clavulanate), Flagyl (metronidazole), and Amoxil (amoxicillin) are frequently used to treat infections that are caused by bacteria.

However, antibiotic medications are being over-prescribed and overused. Many mild infections will improve and clear naturally without the need for medication. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 30 percent of prescribed antibiotics are unnecessary. [2] This is worrying because the overuse of antibiotics can cause antibiotic resistance leading to the development of ‘superbugs.’

some antibiotic pills

Antibiotic resistance is the term used when bacterial infections no longer respond to antibiotics. It is the bacteria that is affected, rather than the people taking antibiotics. Every year, around two million people contract antibiotic-resistant infections. These lead to at least 23,000 deaths every year. [3]

Antibiotic resistance is a major problem and the World Health Organization describes it as one of the biggest threats to global health today. The problem is causing infections such as pneumonia, salmonellosis, tuberculosis, and gonorrhea to become more difficult to treat. [4] This is resulting in a higher mortality rate, longer treatment times, and an increase in medical costs. The worry is that if bacteria continue to mutate and resist antibiotics, common infections may once again become fatal. [4]

Keep reading to learn more about antibiotic resistance, including how it occurs, when antibiotics should be used, and how you can help to combat this problem.

How do Bacteria Become Antibiotic-Resistant?

In order to survive, Bacteria are constantly evolving naturally through random mutations. When bacteria mutate in a way that reduces the effectiveness of medications, they survive and continue to spread and divide rapidly. [5]

There are several ways that bacteria can survive the use of antibiotics. Some bacteria are able to neutralize the antibiotic drug, some are able to alter where the antibiotics attack while others can remove the antibiotic from the infected area. If even a single bacterium cell is able to survive, it can divide in order to replace all of the cells that were destroyed or damaged. These replaced cells are more likely to be antibiotic-resistant, having already been exposed to the medication. [6]

What Are Antibiotics Prescribed For?

Antibiotics are used to treat infections caused by bacteria. The most common bacterial infections that are treated with antibiotics include:

  • Skin infections such as acne 
  • Lung infections such as bronchitis
  • Eye infections such as conjunctivitis
  • Ear infections such as middle-ear infection
  • Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) such as gonorrhea
  • Urinary tract infections (UTIs) 

A woman having an eye exam

a. When Should Antibiotics be Used?

In order to reduce the risk of antibiotic resistance, doctors are being encouraged to not prescribe antibiotics for every bacterial infection. Instead, they should be prescribed if they meet any of the following criteria: [7]

  • If the condition is unlikely to improve without the use of antibiotics.
  • If antibiotics will dramatically improve the time of recovery.
  • When the condition may spread to others when not treated quickly.
  • When the condition may result in severe complications when not treated quickly.

b. What do Antibiotics Not Treat?

There are several different causes of infections. Antibiotics are only effective against infections that are caused by bacteria. They will not improve the condition of viral infections such as influenza, fungal infections such as athlete’s foot, or parasitic infections such as lice.

How Can You Help?

Antibiotic resistance is a global problem. However, like many worldwide issues, everybody can do their part to help.

a. Keeping Healthy

A simple but important way to protect yourself against antibiotic resistance is by staying as healthy as you can. It isn’t always possible to stay healthy and many of us already have medical conditions. However, there are steps you can take that can help prevent contracting and spreading infections.

It is always important to wash your hands regularly, especially before handling food and after using the washroom. Covering your mouth and nose while you are coughing and sneezing can also prevent infections from spreading. Additionally, getting your recommended vaccines, such as the flu shot, can help prevent contracting infections in the first place.

Blue and white antibiotics spilling out of a glass

b. Following Your Doctor’s Directions

Even people who take the utmost care can get infections. If your doctor prescribes you antibiotics for your condition, it is important to follow their directions carefully. If you have any questions about your medication or how to take it, then ask your doctor or pharmacist directly.

When taking antibiotic medication such as Augmentin (amoxicillin/clavulanate), Flagyl (metronidazole), and Amoxil (amoxicillin) you should not skip any doses. This can increase the chance of bacteria surviving or coming back at a later date. Just as importantly, you should continue taking your medication for the entire amount of time prescribed, even if your infection has cleared. 

You should not share antibiotic medications with anybody else, even if they are showing the same symptoms. Equally, you should not take antibiotics that have been prescribed for anyone else. Antibiotic medications should only ever be used for the person and the condition they were prescribed for. If you have leftover medication, you should not save them for a later infection but should discard them safely.

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.