Common Misconceptions About Antibiotic Resistance

Antibiotic Resistance Is a Serious Issue

There have been concerns about Antibiotic resistant bacteria within the scientific community for some time now. Over recent years this concern has come out of the woodwork and into the spotlight. There is a great threat to humanity if our antibiotics lose their effectiveness against bacteria, and the way we are over using antibiotics is not helping the cause.

Within the past decade the number of antibiotic resistant bacteria has dramatically increased. Hospitals seem to be getting hit the worst with these “Superbugs”  and in some cases they are becoming entirely untreatable even with the “Last line Of Defense” antibiotics.  Current WHO figures show that about 700,000 people die each year from resistant infections, and that figure is expected to rise to 10 million by 2050 if no actions are taken.

Human nature is such, that we tend to downplay the severity of situations that are affecting us, however it would be wise to counter this fault, and take action while we still can. The release of a World Health Organization (WHO)  survey describes public awareness around antibiotic resistance, and highlights common misconceptions that are driving the current crisis. Here are seven of them.

1. Antibiotics Won’t Cause Resistance If I Take Them Correctly

Incorrect.

Antibiotic resistance revolves around Darwinian natural selection, and a bacteria’s ability to survive against chemicals and outside influences. Fungi and other bacteria produce chemicals to fight off other bacteria. In 1928 Alexander Fleming was able to get those certain chemicals from fungus, giving us Penicillin which we use today to fight off bacterial infections.

Bacteria that is able to resist these chemicals has a survival advantage and will live to replicate and pass on its protective genes to its offspring. Some sensitive bacteria can also acquire resistance genes from other bacteria, also rendering them resistant. Whenever we use an antibiotic it kills all the bacteria that do not have a resistance mechanism – that is, those that are sensitive, but leave any that are resistant.

Given the right circumstances, the resistant bacteria will replicate and can either cause infection in the treated person. They are then able to be transferred to another person, for example by touch. This is one way in which antibiotic-resistant bacteria are spread, especially in healthcare settings, if healthcare professionals do not practice good hand hygiene.

Any time you take antibiotics, you risk the chance of having bacteria becoming immune.

2. It’s Our Bodies That Become Resistant To The Antibiotic

Incorrect, it’s the bacteria that becomes resistant.

Our bodies are not effected by antibiotics, antibiotics only inhibit bacteria. So when you get sick, and take antibiotics, your symptoms improve because they are helping your body fight off the bacteria. When the bacteria becomes resistant to the medicine you are stuck fighting a resistant bacteria that is now more difficult to fight off.

Therefore, there is nothing we can change about our bodies that will overcome the resistance to antibiotics in the bacteria.

3. Antibiotics Are The Cure For The Common Cold And Flu

Incorrect.

Antibiotics only work against bacteria. The common cold and flu are caused by viruses, Antibiotics do nothing to inhibit virus replication.

The overuse and misuse of antibiotics for viral infections is one of the single biggest drivers of the increase in antibiotic resistance worldwide. The only result of taking an antibiotic for a cold is to:

  • do yourself harm through unwanted side effects of the antibiotic; and
  • do yourself, your family, friends and society harm by increasing antibiotic resistance.

The majority of respondents across the 12 countries surveyed by WHO incorrectly believe that viruses such as colds and flu (64%) can be treated with antibiotics. Nearly 70% of the 1002 South African respondents shared this misconception, which often translates into pressure put on doctors and nurses by patients to prescribe an antibiotic when they feel ill.

Overall, reported antibiotic use was higher in the lower income countries included in the survey, where 42% of people say they used antibiotics within the past month compared with 29% of people surveyed in higher income countries.

4. If I Feel Better, I Can Stop My Antibiotics

Incorrect.

But there is a caveat. It clearly depends on whether you are taking the antibiotic for a bacterial infection, or incorrectly for, say, a viral infection. If this is the case, then the shorter the time you are on an antibiotic the better.

But if you have a bacterial infection that needs treating with an antibiotic, then it is vital that you take the course as prescribed. Our symptoms commonly improve before all the bacteria are killed and dealt with by the body.

If you stop your antibiotics early, or if you miss doses, then the amount of antibiotic available to kill the bacteria is not enough and the bacteria are still able to replicate. It is easier for bacteria to become resistant if there is too little antibiotic present. So always complete your course and don’t stop just because you feel better.

5. I Can Take Leftovers, Or Some From Family Or Friends

Incorrect.

Never take antibiotics that are left over from past treatments or given by family or friends. Only take antibiotics prescribed from a doctor or nurse. There are two good reasons for this:

  • antibiotics past their date are more likely to cause resistance as the active ingredient may be impaired; and
  • antibiotics from other people may not be the correct choice. There are many different types of antibiotics used to treat different infections, which means that your infection will not be treated correctly, also increasing the chance that bacteria can become resistant.

6. Resistance Only Happens From Repeated Courses

Incorrect.

Antibiotic resistance can occur whenever you take an antibiotic, whether it is a single course or multiple repeat courses. The more courses you take, the more resistance can occur. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t occur with a single course.

On top of that, a single course of antibiotics can lead to life-threatening unwanted side effects and potentially catastrophic changes to the normal bacteria that live in our guts. Sometimes an inbalance can occur within your gut causing issues that take a while to balance out. So only take antibiotics when you really need them.

7. It’s The Medical Professions Fault

The medical profession has definitely failed the general public. We need to do a lot more to educate and raise public awareness around the problem of antibiotic resistance and the appropriate use of antibiotics.

But the difficult truth is that we are all in this together. The pressure on doctors and nurses to prescribe antibiotics from the public can be intense. Good practice is often undermined by uncertainty either due to lack of knowledge and/or lack of point-of-care diagnostics. Patient pressure to prescribe compounds the problem.

The bottom line is that we are all responsible for our future. Antibiotics are a global common good. They belong to everyone, so what one person does affects the next one. It’s time we all became “Antibiotic Guardians” to retard the relentless rise of bacterial resistance through correcting inappropriate use of this vital resource.

Watch a video showing Bacteria evolving resistance to antibiotics.

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