As many of us prepare to bombard our doctors for a prescription of antibiotics to deal with colds and flu, let’s make sure we understand a little more about antibiotics and the way they work in our bodies.
Antibiotics are responsible for saving millions of lives; there’s no question about it. Many of us have had illnesses min the course of our lives where without the use of an antibiotic therapy, we would not still be here!
Before the introduction of antibiotics (penicillin was discovered in 1928), infection was the leading cause of death in America. Once they hit the scene, they were deemed so miraculous, doctors and patients alike saw them as a cure for every condition, serious or not.
However, there is a dark side to these “wonder drugs”. As a result of being misused, new generations of disease strains resistant to antibiotic attack have emerged. If this trend continues, we will find ourselves back in the days when even the simplest infection could kill.
Just today, a colleague approached and said she was not felling well. Sore throat; headache, the works. She was rushing to a quickly scheduled doctor’s appointment. Jokingly, I told her that I would “doctor’ her up. She looked me in the eye and said, “don’t you think I need an antibiotic?”
Immediately, I asked her if she had a bacterial or viral infection. She wondered why I asked such a question. I informed her that if it was a viral infection, an antibiotic would be useless. “ Oh, I guess I need to find that out first before I conclude that I need an antibiotic”, she said.
Here you have a classic example of the attitude of many of us, which has led to a serious problem in our world.
I mean it’s crazy!
Have a sore throat? Take penicillin.
Does the baby have an ear infection? Give her amoxicillin.
Do you have a nasty cough and/or cold? Take erythromycin.
We have grown so accustomed to taking antibiotics that we demand them whether our condition would actually respond to antibiotic therapy or not. All of the “old-fashioned” cures for colds – bed rest, warm drinks, good nutrition, and other tried and true home remedies – are now considered out of style. It doesn’t matter that antibiotics are useless (and even harmful) against viruses. As patients we beg for them, and many doctors give in.
To meet this insatiable demand, pharmaceutical companies responded by flooding the market with new and stronger antibiotics.
We thought we had won the war on infection. We had driven those bugs and germs into full retreat. But they were not to be defeated!
Just a guerilla army that grows more fearsome after it is driven into the hills, the bugs come back. In true military fashion, they test the antibiotics and find their weak points. The bugs developed new and more powerful weapons, now it is us who are truly on the defensive.
How did all this come to be?
When we use antibiotics to treat low-grade infections it is like using a nuclear warhead to squash the schoolyard bully. It is overkill to the nth degree, yet it doesn’t get rid of the problem. Just like another bully hiding around the corner, there’s always another strain of bacteria ready to pounce when we least expect.
Antibiotics are not foolproof- they kill most but not all of the offending bacteria. The strongest of the bacteria survive and reproduce at exponential proportions, and soon, “smart” strains of bacteria immune to the antibiotic are flourishing. The stronger the antibiotic, the stronger the surviving bacteria. To make matters worse, countless numbers of Americans have misused antibiotics by not taking the full course, stopping their medication as soon as they feel better. In so doing, they helped create new and more powerful superbugs. Americans also use – or rather overuse – antibacterial soaps and skin products, going so far as to put antibacterial soaps and skin products, going so far as to antibacterial additives in children’s toys!
All we are doing is making sure that the strongest and most resistant of the deadly bacteria survive and thrive.
What’s even deeper is that, even if you take them only when needed and never abuse them, you may be taking antibiotics without even knowing it.
Around 30% of the antibiotics sold in the United States are fed to livestock, and find their way into the meat and dairy products we eat, as well as water and soil we depend on. Just think about it, every time you eat a piece of meat or drink a glass of milk, you could be consuming minute amounts of antibiotic residue. If scientist tried to intentionally create the “ultimate germ”, they couldn’t do a better job.
I’m not trying to scare you. The risk of being wiped out by a virulent infection is slight, and the chance that you’ll die of an antibiotic-resistant strain of bacteria is slim. Nevertheless, there are some serious costs to the overuse of antibiotics that affect us all.
Have you ever noticed how you often relapse into an illness immediately after taking an antibiotic? It’s not your imagination. Antibiotics can actually weaken your immune system, leaving you more vulnerable to the next “bug” that comes your way.
Taking an antibiotic for common ailments that can heal on their own is particularly bad for children. (for example, the common cold has an average life of 3-5 days, the standard course of antibiotics is 5-7 days) What many parents may not realize is that the immune system learns through experience. Each encounter with a virus or bacteria teaches immune cells valuable lessons that will be used the next time they meet up with the same “bug”. So when children are given antibiotics for every sniffle, they may be robbed of their ability to effectively fight infection on their own. Yes, it may take a day or two longer for children to beat an infection without an antibiotic, but in the long run, it may be far better for the child.
Antibiotics weaken our immune system in another important way that affects both children and adults: These powerful drugs don’t just kill the bad bacteria that make us sick, they also affect the billions of “friendly” bacteria that keeps us well. Without these friendly bacteria, we can’t digest our food properly or keep our other systems running well. The side effects of antibiotics are limited to a little indigestion. Antibiotics wipe out the good bacteria that keep us from getting overwhelmed by harmful E. coli infections, salmonella, and staph. Overuse of antibiotics has resulted in an epidemic of yeast infections in women. Many strains of yeast are now drug resistant, too!
The overuse of antibiotics has created a new breed of smarter and more virulent bacteria that are practically indestructible. For example, Streptococcus pneumoniae – the most common cause of bacterial ear infections in young children – has grown resistant to standard doses of amoxicillin, the first line of treatment. Drug-resistant staph infections – once easily cured with penicillin- run rampant throughout the nation’s hospitals. What I find even more frightening is the recent discovery of staph bacteria that are resistant to vancomycin, the most powerful antibiotic on the planet!
All of this is more reason to take care of your immune system. When your immune system functions well, it can usually take care of little problems before they become big ones.
Afterall, a little tolerance can go a log way in dealing with colds, which tend to run their course in 3-5 days, or the flu which generally is history after 7-10 days. A good diet, plenty of rest, and lots of fluids can, in many cases make the process more bearable.
This column is for informational purposes, and should not take the place of proper medical advice from your doctor.
Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.
Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!
The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan.
Glenn Ellis, is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist. He is the author of Which Doctor?, and is a health columnist and radio commentator who lectures, and is an active media contributor nationally and internationally on health related topics. His second book, “Information is the Best Medicine”, is due out in Fall, 2011.
For more good health information, visit: www.glennellis.com