Fight Superbugs by Using Antibiotics Wisely
Most experts agree that antibiotics – or bacteria-killing drugs – are one of the most valuable, life-saving inventions from the 20th century. For nearly a hundred years, we have relied on these drugs to protect us from deadly diseases. Yet we are now entering an era where overuse of these medications may leave us vulnerable to common but dangerous conditions, such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, and staph infections. The Centers for Disease Control has identified this as one of the most serious public health threats in the United States today.
We are fighting a new enemy known as “superbugs,” but luckily, there are steps consumers can take to protect themselves and others from this serious threat. To raise awareness of this issue and encourage best practices, the World Health Organization has designated November 18-24 as World Antibiotics Awareness Week. MidMichigan Health is joining health leaders around the world to educate patients, providers, the policy makers and the public.
Utibe Effiong, M.D., specializes in internal medicine for MidMichigan Health. He serves as a clinical assistant professor at Central Michigan University and is also a senior global health fellow at the Aspen Institute. Dr. Effiong explains what superbugs are and what patients can do to protect themselves:
What are superbugs, and how did they get here?
Superbugs are bacteria that have adapted and evolved to resist multiple antibiotic drugs. Part of the reason they exist is because we have been overusing antibiotics, not just in medicine, but in agriculture and other fields. Every time we expose bacteria to these drugs, the ones that are tough enough to survive have a chance to grow and multiply. They can even share their drug-resistant traits with other bacteria, and they can spread to other people.
Over time, the drugs become less effective or may not work at all against certain disease-causing bacteria. Each year these drug-resistant bacteria infect more than 2 million people nationwide and kill at least 23,000 people, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). So we have a serious duty to ensure that we are not using antibiotics except when it is truly necessary.
How do I know when I need an antibiotic?
First, antibiotics do NOT work on viruses such as the cold or flu. They only work on bacterial infections. If you take antibiotics when they are not needed, you increase the risk of creating superbugs while killing off the good bacteria that your body needs to fight infection. Antibiotics also can also cause side effects, such as nausea or diarrhea. So we certainly don’t want to take them when they are not needed and won’t help us feel better.
The first thing doctors consider when deciding whether or not to prescribe an antibiotic is whether your symptoms point to a virus or a bacterial infection. If your doctor suspects you may have a bacterial infection, they may also want to confirm that with a lab test before prescribing antibiotics. For viruses, they will typically advise that you get plenty of rest and fluids and let your body’s own natural defenses do the job of fighting the virus. They can also give you some advice on how to relieve your symptoms in the meantime.
When antibiotics aren't needed, what can I do to feel better?
The most important thing you can do is give your body plenty of rest and fluids and time to fight the virus. It often takes 10-14 days – or more – for your body to fight off a virus.
There are some home remedies or over-the-counter solutions that can relieve your symptoms while you wait, For example, for sore throat you can use ice chips, honey, gargling with salt water or lozenges. For runny nose or sinus pressure, you can use saline nasal sprays or over-the-counter decongestants. For fever, body aches or earaches, there are over-the-counter pain medicines, such as ibuprofen or Tylenol. And for cough, you can use a room humidifier or lozenges. Of course, you should not give medications to young children without first consulting your child’s doctor, and if you have high blood pressure, consult your doctor before using decongestants.
What else can I do to help fight superbugs?
Avoid antibiotics when you don’t need them. When you do need them, follow the directions exactly and don’t stop taking them early, even if your symptoms go away, because that increases the chance for resistant bacteria to survive and thrive. You can also prevent bacteria from spreading through frequent hand washing either with soap and water or a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol.
Dr. Effiong recently co-authored an article in Scientific American about this topic and has issued a podcast with more advice for patients and consumers. Links to these items along with other information about superbugs and proper antibiotic are available at www.midmichigan.org/superbugs. Those interested in more information about World Antibiotic Awareness Week may visit www.who.int/campaigns/world-antibiotic-awareness-week.