• Tue, Nov 13 2012

Get Smart About Antibiotics So They Don’t Kill Us

I appreciate the way the CDC has framed ”Get Smart About Antibiotics” week, with that call to action first and foremost. “Antibiotic awareness” week sounds boring. “Superbugs are trying to kill you” week sounds like a bummer. But “Get Smart About Antibiotics” feels encouraging — get smart about antibiotics? yeah, I think I will! – which is good because being dumb about antibiotics is giving rise to antibiotic resistant bacteria and antibiotic resistant bacteria are trying pretty hard to kill us all.

The number of antibiotic resistant bacteria — things like MRSA and C. diff — has been increasing over the past decade, and many bacterial infections are becoming resistant to common antibiotics. Arjun Srinivasan, associate director of the CDC’s healthcare-associated infection prevention programs, said:

“Although previously unthinkable, the day when antibiotics don’t work is upon us. We are already seeing germs that are stronger than any antibiotics we have to treat them.”

So: I support get smart about antibiotics week. And the best part is that the kinds of things it takes to be smart about antibiotics are really fucking simple. Via the CDC, if you’re prescribed an antibiotic:

1. Take it exactly as prescribed, without skipping doses or stopping as soon as you start feeling better
2. Do not save your antibiotics for next time.
3. Do not share your antibiotics with anyone else or take shared antibiotics

Not that hard. I would add that you should also learn to question antibiotics. While very important when needed (I’m not anti-antibiotic, guys), they’re vastly over-prescribed in the United States. I’ve had doctors write me antibiotic prescriptions when they weren’t even sure yet what was wrong, telling me I might as well take it because it might help and wouldn’t hurt. I’ve also realized it’s often okay not to fill those prescriptions.

Because it does hurt. Overuse of antibiotics is what creates antibiotic resistant bacteria and sometimes drug-resistant superbugs. On a more personal level, it can wipe out the good bacteria (the “probiotics”) in your body. Here’s what the CDC has to say:

“Every time a person takes antibiotics, sensitive bacteria are killed, but resistant germs may be left to grow and multiply. Repeated and improper uses of antibiotics are primary causes of the increase in drug-resistant bacteria.”

In a press release this week, the CDC notes that “antibiotics have been so effective that consumers mistakenly seek antibiotics for conditions that do not benefit from antibiotic treatment.” In one recent survey, 38% of respondents expressed a desire for antibiotics to treat a cold.

Antibiotics don’t treat colds. Colds are viral infections; antibiotics only treat bacterial infections. That means antibiotics don’t work on the common cold, the flu, most coughs and bronchitis, runny noses or sore throats not caused by strep. The CDC nicely sums up the fallacy in taking antibiotics “for viral infections such as a cold, cough, the flu or most bronchitis,” noting that it will not:

  • Cure the infections;
  • Keep other individuals from catching the illness; or
  • Help you feel better.
Here’s a handy chart with a 70s-style owl graphic that sums it up: CDC get smart chart >>

I think it’s also important to point out that smart use of antibiotics means also using probiotics. Antibiotics wipe out the good bacteria in your body along with the bad, so it’s important to replenish your intestinal flora with probiotic supplements or probiotic-rich foods. Taking probiotics along with antibiotics has also been shown to prevent antibiotic-induced diarrhea and boost your immune system.

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