Antibiotics: Are you misusing them?

Find out how overuse of antibiotics has increased the number of medication-resistant germs — and what you can do to help stop this health threat.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Antibiotics are important medications. It would be difficult to overstate the benefits of penicillin and other antibiotics in treating bacterial infections, preventing the spread of disease and reducing serious complications of disease.

But some medications that used to be standard treatments for bacterial infections are now less effective or don't work at all. When an antibiotic no longer has an effect on a certain strain of bacteria, those bacteria are said to be antibiotic resistant. Antibiotic resistance is one of the world's most pressing health problems.

The overuse and misuse of antibiotics are key factors contributing to antibiotic resistance. The general public, doctors and hospitals all play a role in ensuring proper use of the medications and minimizing the development of antibiotic resistance.

What causes antibiotic resistance?

A bacterium resists a medication when the bacterium has changed in some way. The change either protects the bacterium from the action of the medication or neutralizes the medication.

Any bacterium that survives an antibiotic treatment can multiply and pass on its resistant properties. Also, some bacteria can transfer their medication-resistant properties to other bacteria — as if passing along a cheat sheet to help each other survive.

The fact that bacteria develop resistance to a medication is normal and expected. But the way that medications are used affects how quickly and to what extent resistance occurs.

Overuse of antibiotics

The overuse of antibiotics — especially taking antibiotics even when they're not the appropriate treatment — promotes antibiotic resistance. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to one-third to one-half of antibiotic use in humans is unnecessary or inappropriate.

Antibiotics treat bacterial infections but not viral infections. For example, an antibiotic is an appropriate treatment for strep throat, which is caused by the bacterium Streptococcus pyogenes. But it's not the right treatment for most sore throats, which are caused by viruses.

Other common viral infections that don't benefit from antibiotic treatment include:

  • Cold
  • Flu (influenza)
  • Bronchitis
  • Most coughs
  • Some ear infections
  • Some sinus infections
  • Stomach flu

Taking an antibiotic for a viral infection:

  • Won't cure the infection
  • Won't keep other people from getting sick
  • Won't help you or your child feel better
  • May cause unnecessary and harmful side effects
  • Promotes antibiotic resistance

If you take an antibiotic when you actually have a viral infection, the antibiotic attacks bacteria in your body — bacteria that are either beneficial or at least not causing disease. This misdirected treatment can then promote antibiotic-resistant properties in harmless bacteria that can be shared with other bacteria, or create an opportunity for potentially harmful bacteria to replace the harmless ones.

Taking antibiotics responsibly

It's tempting to stop taking an antibiotic as soon as you feel better. But the full treatment is necessary to kill the disease-causing bacteria. Failure to take an antibiotic as prescribed can result in the need to resume treatment later and may promote the spread of antibiotic-resistant properties among harmful bacteria.

Consequences of antibiotic resistance

For many years, the introduction of new antibiotics outpaced the development of antibiotic resistance. In recent years, however, the pace of medication resistance has contributed to an increasing number of health care problems.

Approximately 2 million infections from antibiotic-resistant bacteria occur in the United States each year, resulting in 23,000 deaths.

Other consequences of medication-resistant infections include:

  • More-serious illness
  • Longer recovery
  • More-frequent or longer hospitalization
  • More doctor visits
  • More-expensive treatments

Antibiotic stewardship

The appropriate use of antibiotics — often called antibiotic stewardship — can help to:

  • Preserve the effectiveness of current antibiotics
  • Extend the life span of current antibiotics
  • Protect people from antibiotic-resistant infections
  • Avoid side effects from using antibiotics inappropriately

Many hospitals and medical associations have implemented new diagnostic and treatment guidelines to ensure effective treatments for bacterial infections and reduce inappropriate use of antibiotics.

The public also plays a role in antibiotic stewardship. You can help reduce the development of antibiotic resistance if you:

  • Avoid pressuring your doctor to give you an antibiotic prescription. Ask your doctor for advice on how to treat symptoms.
  • Practice good hygiene, to avoid bacterial infections that need antibiotic treatment.
  • Make sure you and your children receive recommended vaccinations. Some recommended vaccines protect against bacterial infections, such as diphtheria and whooping cough (pertussis).
  • Reduce your risk of getting a foodborne bacterial infection. Don't drink raw milk, wash your hands, and cook foods to a safe internal temperature.
  • Use antibiotics only as prescribed by your doctor. Take the prescribed daily dosage, and complete the entire course of treatment.
  • Never take leftover antibiotics for a later illness. They may not be the correct antibiotic and would not be a full course of treatment.
  • Never take antibiotics prescribed for another person.
Jan. 18, 2018 See more In-depth