Antibiotics: Misuse puts you and others at risk

Antibiotics can be lifesavers, but misuse has increased the number of drug-resistant germs. See how this affects you and what you can do to help prevent antibiotic resistance. By Mayo Clinic Staff

If you think antibiotic resistance isn't a problem or doesn't affect you, think again. A prominent example of the dangers of antibiotic resistance is the spread of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). MRSA was once a concern only for people in the hospital, but a newer form of MRSA is causing infections in healthy people in the community.

Antibiotic resistance occurs when antibiotics no longer work against disease-causing bacteria. These infections are difficult to treat and can mean longer lasting illnesses, more doctor visits or extended hospital stays, and the need for more expensive and toxic medications. Some resistant infections can even cause death.

Although experts are working to develop new antibiotics and other treatments to keep pace with antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, infectious organisms can adapt quickly. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria will continue to be a global health concern — and using antibiotics wisely is important for preventing their spread.

When is it appropriate to use antibiotics?

Antibiotics are effective against bacterial infections, certain fungal infections and some kinds of parasites. Antibiotics don't work against viruses. The chart shows common illnesses and whether they're caused by bacteria or viruses. Taking an antibiotic when you have a viral infection won't make you feel better — and can contribute to antibiotic resistance.

Bacterial infectionsViral infections
  • Bladder infections
  • Many wound and skin infections, such as staph infections
  • Severe sinus infections that last longer than 2 weeks
  • Some ear infections
  • Strep throat
  • Bronchitis
  • Colds
  • Flu (influenza)
  • Most coughs
  • Most ear infections
  • Most sore throats
  • Stomach flu (viral gastroenteritis)

Consequences of antibiotic misuse

If antibiotics are used too often for things they can't treat — like colds, flu or other viral infections — not only are they of no benefit, they become less effective against the bacteria they're intended to treat.

Not taking antibiotics exactly as prescribed also leads to problems. For example, if you take an antibiotic for only a few days — instead of the full course — the antibiotic may wipe out some, but not all, of the bacteria. The surviving bacteria become more resistant and can be spread to other people. When bacteria become resistant to first line treatments, the risk of complications and death is increased.

The failure of first line antibiotics also means that doctors have to resort to less conventional medications, many of which are more costly and associated with more-serious side effects. For instance, the drugs needed to treat drug-resistant forms of tuberculosis (TB) are much more expensive than are the drugs used to treat nonresistant TB. The course of treatment is long — up to two years — and the side effects can be severe.

Other consequences are the increased costs associated with prolonged illnesses, including expenses for additional tests, treatments and hospitalization, and indirect costs, such as lost income.

Feb. 04, 2012 See more In-depth