This week we celebrate Get Smart About Antibiotics Week. Antibiotics, or antimicrobials as they are also called, cure bacterial infections by killing bacteria or reducing their ability to reproduce so your own body’s immune system can overcome an infection. Penicillin was the first antibiotic, and was discovered in 1924 by Alexander Fleming. Since its widespread use, beginning in the 1940s, countless lives have been saved from devastating bacterial infections. Talk about a wonder drug!
Improper use of antibiotics can have dangerous consequences.
Since then, different types of antibiotics have been developed to combat many different types of infectious bacteria. Classes of antibiotics include penicillins, cephalosporins, macrolides, fluoroquinolones, aminoglycosides, and others. In each of these classes there are lots of different individual medications. (For example, cephalosporins include the drugs cephalexin, ceftriaxone, cefaclor, and others.) Some antibiotics are broad spectrum, which means they work on many different bacteria. Some are more narrow spectrum, used for specific bacteria.
Antibiotics only work for bacterial infections … not viral infections. They are ineffective at killing viruses. Viral infections include colds, flu, runny noses, most coughs and bronchitis, and sore throats unless they are caused by strep. Sexually transmitted viruses include human papillomavirus (HPV), herpes simplex virus, and HIV.
So what’s the big deal if you treat a viral infection with an antibiotic?
- You will not cure the infection and you probably won’t feel better
- You will not keep others from getting your infection
- You may have side effects from an unnecessary drug
- You may allow bacteria in your body to mutate and become resistant to antibiotics — these resistant bacteria may be more dangerous and may not be treatable by any available antibiotics
This last point is most important. There are not a lot of new antibiotics currently being developed, and it takes a long time to develop effective ones against these new resistant strains of bacteria. Infections such as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) are now very dangerous and more difficult to treat because none of the old antibiotics work anymore. In the example of gonorrhea, which is widespread and used to be easily cured, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention no longer recommends oral drugs in the United States. Injectable ceftriaxone is the only remaining effective drug that can treat gonorrhea, because the bacteria that cause gonorrhea have developed resistance to every other drug.
What types of infections might be bacterial? Urinary tract infections (including bladder and kidney infections), wound and skin infections, strep throat, severe sinus infections, and certain ear infections are some examples. There are also sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) caused by bacteria, such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis.
If you have been prescribed an antibiotic for your bacterial infection, how can you make it most effective and reduce the chances of allowing the bacteria to develop resistance to the antibiotic? Here are a few simple rules to follow:
- Complete the full course of medication, even if you start to feel better
- Do not skip doses
- Do not save any of the antibiotic — different infections may need different antibiotics, so if you develop an infection later, this antibiotic may not work
- Don’t share — your friend’s infection may be due to a different bug than yours, even if it’s a similar type of infection
- Talk with your health professional — do you really need an antibiotic? What else can you use or do to feel better?
Sometimes you may not get better with one course of antibiotic, and since different antibiotics target different groups of infections, you may need an additional course of another antibiotic. Some people have allergies to antibiotics or may be on other medications that interact with antibiotics, so be sure to discuss all your meds and allergies with your health care provider.
Misuse of antibiotics has become a global health problem and is causing great concern among the health community as many microorganisms develop resistance to our arsenal of antibiotics. Responsible use of antibiotics is the key to protecting our future health.
Planned Parenthood treats bacterial infections such as urinary tract infections and bacterial STDs. Schedule an appointment at any Planned Parenthood health center to be treated for these infections — we can prescribe antibiotics and help you get the most out of them!