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The Danger of Antibiotic Overuse

What Is Antibiotic Overuse?

Antibiotic overuse is when antibiotics are used when they're not needed. Antibiotics are one of the great advances in medicine. But overprescribing them has led to resistant bacteria (bacteria that are harder to treat).

Some germs that were once very responsive to antibiotics have become more and more resistant. This can cause more serious infections, such as pneumococcal infections (pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections, and meningitis), skin infections, and tuberculosis.

What Do Antibiotics Treat?

Two major types of germs can make people sick: bacteria and viruses. They can cause diseases with similar symptoms, but they multiply and spread illness differently:

  • Bacteria are living organisms existing as single cells. Bacteria are everywhere and most don't cause any harm, and in some cases are beneficial. But some bacteria are harmful and cause illness by invading the body, multiplying, and interfering with normal body processes.

    Antibiotics work against bacteria because they kill these living organisms by stopping their growth and reproduction.
  • Viruses, on the other hand, are not alive. Viruses grow and reproduce only after they've invaded other living cells. The body's immune system can fight off some viruses before they cause illness, but others (like colds) must simply run their course. Antibiotics do not work against viruses.

Why Are Antibiotics Overprescribed?

Doctors prescribe antibiotics for different reasons. Sometimes they prescribe them when they're not sure if an illness is caused by bacteria or a virus or are waiting for test results. So, some patients might expect a prescription for an antibitoic and even ask their doctor for it.

For example, strep throat is a bacterial infection, but most sore throats are due to viruses, allergies, or other things that antibiotics cannot treat. But many people with a sore throat will go to a health care provider expecting — and getting — a prescription for antibiotics that they do not need.

What Happens When Antibiotics Are Overused?

Taking antibiotics for colds and other viral illnesses doesn't work — and it can create bacteria that are harder to kill.

Taking antibiotics too often or for the wrong reasons can change bacteria so much that antibiotics don't work against them. This is called bacterial resistance or antibiotic resistance. Some bacteria are now resistant to even the most powerful antibiotics available.

Antibiotic resistance is a growing problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls it "one of the world's most pressing public health problems." It's especially a concern in low-income and developing countries. That's because:

  • Health care providers there often lack quick, helpful diagnostic tools that can identify which illnesses are caused by bacteria and which are not.
  • Many of the areas only recently got widespread access to antibiotics.
  • Lack of clean water, poor sanitation, and limited vaccine programs contribute to the infections and illnesses that antibiotics are prescribed for.

What Can Parents Do?

Every family faces its share of colds, sore throats, and viruses. When you bring your child to the doctor for these illnesses, it's important to not expect a prescription for antibiotics.

To lower the risk of bacterial resistance and prevent antibiotic overuse:

  • Ask your doctor if your child's illness is bacterial or viral. Discuss the risks and benefits of antibiotics. If it's a virus, ask about ways to treat symptoms. Don't pressure your doctor to prescribe antibiotics.
  • Let milder illnesses (especially those caused by viruses) run their course. This helps prevent germs from becoming antibiotic-resistant.
  • Antibiotics must be taken for the full amount of time prescribed by the doctor. Otherwise, the infection may come back.
  • Don't let your child take antibiotics longer than prescribed.
  • Do not use leftover antibiotics or save extra antibiotics "for next time."
  • Don't give your child antibiotics that were prescribed for another family member or adult.

It's also important to make sure that your kids:

Reviewed by: Kate M. Cronan, MD
Date Reviewed: 01-07-2019

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