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Health blog

When it's Time for Antibiotics

Since antibiotics became widely available in the mid 1940’s, they have saved millions of lives. Before antibiotics, small cuts could lead to serious infections. Pneumonia could turn deadly overnight. And soldiers died far more often from infected battlefield wounds than from the injury itself. Antibiotics – medications that fight bacteria – were the miracle drugs of their time. Life expectancy in the United States grew from about 47 years in 1900 to 78.5 years today, partly due to antibiotics.

Antibiotics were so effective that in 1967 the U.S. Surgeon General said it was time to close the book on infectious diseases and turn our attention and resources to chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease. That prediction turned out to be very wrong. The overuse and incorrect use of antibiotics led to a surge in infections that are now difficult or impossible to treat with available antibiotics – a phenomenon known as antibiotic-resistance.

Many experts believe that antibiotic-resistance is one of the greatest threats to human health in the world. How do bacteria become resistant to antibiotics? When people take antibiotics for bacterial infections, sensitive bacteria are promptly killed, but resistant germs may be left to grow and multiply, especially if the medication is stopped too soon. Improper use of antibiotics is a primary cause for the increase in drug-resistant bacteria.

We can all do our part to help keep ourselves and our children healthy by understanding when antibiotics are needed, and if so, by taking them correctly. Antibiotics will not cure diseases caused by viruses, such as the flu or colds. Many coughs, sore throats and ear infections are also caused by viruses and cannot be helped by antibiotics. Antibiotics may help cure diseases caused by bacteria, such as strep throat, many wound and skin infections, some kinds of meningitis and pneumonia, bladder infections, certain ear infections, and food poisoning caused by bacteria (i.e., Salmonella, Campylobacter).

When you take a sick child to see the doctor, remember that physicians are people, too. They want to make patients happy and parental pressure makes a difference. One study showed that doctors prescribe antibiotics 62% of the time if they perceive parents expect them and 7% of the time if they feel parents do not expect them. Don’t pressure your doctor into prescribing possibly unnecessary antibiotics.

If you and your doctor decide that antibiotics are appropriate, be sure to take them exactly as prescribed. That means: 1) Don’t stop taking antibiotics when your child feels better. Doing so leaves the resistant bacteria alive to reproduce and cause further illness in the same person or in other family members. 2) There should never be ‘extra’ antibiotics left over. Take them all as prescribed; if the doctor says to stop taking them, dispose of the remainder in a safe manner. 3) Never share antibiotics with other people who may have different infections or who may be allergic to a particular antibiotic. 4) Don’t ask the doctor for a specific antibiotic because you’ve heard it is better. Trust the doctor to prescribe the right antibiotic for a given condition.

As with so many things, it’s easier to prevent an infection than to cure one. Disease-causing bacteria on dirty hands can enter the body through the nose, mouth and open sores. Washing hands properly greatly reduces the risk of transmission. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) hand washing is an important way of preventing the spread of infection. Wash hands before preparing, eating or serving food, and tending someone who is sick or who has an open sore. Wash hands after using the bathroom, changing a diaper, handling trash, blowing the nose or coughing, contact with pets, tending someone who is sick or who has an open sore, and touching raw meat, fish and poultry. Don’t bother buying expensive antibacterial products unless your healthcare provider advises otherwise. Such products have not been proven to prevent the spread of infection better than products without antibacterial chemicals.

Doctors are reporting increasing numbers of bacterial infections that fail to respond to antibiotic treatment. A government task force recently noted that antibiotic resistance is “a growing menace to all people,” cautioning that continued spread of resistance means that treatments for common infections “will become increasingly limited and expensive—and, in some cases, nonexistent.” Let’s all use antibiotics appropriately and responsibly so they will continue to be effective now and in the future.

Resources: CDC: Antibiotic/Antimicrobial Resistance. At:, and Mayo Clinic: Antibiotics. At:

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