By Eduardo Gonzales, MD
Why is there so much concern about antibiotics abuse? What are antibiotics, their uses and adverse effects?—firstname.lastname@example.org
Antibiotics are substances produced by microorganisms or fungi that can kill or arrest the growth or reproduction of other microorganisms. In 1928, Alexander Fleming, while working on a culture of disease-causing bacteria, noticed that the bacteria failed to grow in those areas of the culture that have been accidentally contaminated by a mold, Penicillium notatum. He studied the mold and found out that it produced a substance—later named penicillin—that was capable of killing many of the common bacteria that infect humans. Thus, the era of antibiotics started.
There are currently many types of antibiotics. All are primarily used to prevent or control infections.
Antibiotics are not always the answer
Antibiotics are not effective against all types of infection. As a rule, they work only against those caused by bacteria although a few possess anti-protozoal activity. They are useless against, and may even prolong or complicate, viral and other non-bacterial infections. Hence, you should not take them for the common cold or the flu, which are viral infections. Also, not all bacterial infections need treatment with antibiotics. Our body’s natural defenses are often able to fend off mild ones. Antibiotics are only indicated when it becomes apparent that our body’s natural defenses are inadequate to cope with an infection.
The proper use of antibiotics
Antibiotics are very powerful and, oftentimes, lifesaving medicines, but only if used correctly. Otherwise, they can be dangerous.
No single antibiotic is effective against all bacterial infections. Antibiotics, even the broad-spectrum ones, are effective only against a limited number of disease-causing bacteria. Thus, the first step in the correct use of antibiotics is determining which one to utilize in a particular infection. To do this, you need to identify the offending microorganism—a process that is beyond the capability of a layman. This is the physician’s expertise. In fact, even physicians often need to order lab exams to help them out. Thus, there is no room for self-medication in as far as antibiotics are concerned. Leave the prescribing to your physician. But if and when you are prescribed an antibiotic, make sure you take it at the prescribed dose, frequency, and duration. No more and no less.
The right dose and frequency of intake depends on the antibiotic that will be used and the severity of the infection. Under-dosage makes an antibiotic ineffective even if it’s the correct one while over-dosage increases the possibility of adverse effects and toxicity. In so far as duration is concerned, a course of treatment that is too short can lead to a relapse while prolonged treatment can cause super-infection —a condition where a microorganism that is resistant to the antibiotic infects the patient.
Consequences of antibiotic misuse and abuse
Indiscriminate use of antibiotics is dangerous. All antibiotics can cause adverse reactions and toxicity. Most of these adverse effects such as nausea, vomiting, and upset stomach are mild, but some, like an allergic reaction, can be 1ife-threatening and even fatal.
But perhaps the biggest reason why antibiotics should be used very judiciously is this: Germs are smart. All have the capacity to mutate and become resistant to antibiotics. Superbugs (i.e., bacteria that are antibiotic-resistant) have emerged and spread because of our misuse and abuse of antibiotics and they already pose a serious and growing threat worldwide. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), unless we learn to use antibiotics properly, we will soon enter what is called a post-antibiotic era, in which common and minor infections can kill because the bacteria causing them are antibiotic-resistant.
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