Medically Approved

Are antibiotics being overused?

Doctor handing out pills

Optum Perks Author

By Optum Perks Author

The term antibiotic refers to a broad range of medications used to treat or prevent bacterial infections. More and more speculation is growing about the use of antibiotics and whether the overuse can lead to serious consequences. It's estimated that nearly 47 million antibiotic prescriptions in the United States alone are prescribed incorrectly or were unnecessary - that's at least 30% of antibiotics prescribed yearly.

Proper Use

Antibiotics are your friend in most instances, given they are prescribed and taken correctly. Providers need to be attentive to patient symptoms to make sure the correct diagnosis is confirmed - differentiating between a bacterial infection and viral infection is critical. Antibiotics are only meant for bacterial infections, as they're not effective in treating viral infections. Taking antibiotics unnecessarily and/or not finishing the full course of antibiotics can allow bacteria to become resistant to the antibiotics that were meant to kill them. Roughly 23,000 people die annually due to antibiotic-resistant infections. This is how antibiotic resistance works:

  1. You have a bacterial infection, but a few of the bacteria are resistant to the antibiotic (drug resistant) used to treat the infection.
  2. The antibiotics kills the bad bacteria causing the illness as well as good bacteria protecting the body from infection.
  3. What remains are the drug-resistant bacteria that were not killed by the antibiotic and they take over.
  4. Some of the bacteria give drug resistance to other bacteria, causing further problems.

In the case where the full prescription wasn’t taken, although the individual may feel better, the infection isn’t actually gone. The bacteria grows back when the antibiotics are stopped and often become resistant to the original medication.

Side Effects

All medications have side effects, but antibiotics sometimes have more severe side effects than other types of medications. Common side effects for antibiotics include: diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and rashes. Also consider that many people are allergic to antibiotics. Allergic reactions can range from mild (rash or hives) to severe (tightness in chest, shortness of breath, anaphylaxis: a life-threatening reaction). It would be valuable to discuss the side effects of the antibiotic prescribed and any potential complication that could arise from taking it.

Further Complications

Most antibiotics are taken orally, at least when patients are outside of the hospital. Oral antibiotics are to your gut what chemotherapy is to your body. They kill all the bad bacteria (minus the resistant ones) as well as the good bacteria in your body. Believe it or not, your intestines house a plethora of healthy bacteria that play an important role in your health. Gut bacteria is thought to play an important role with the immune system, absorbing vital nutrients, and potentially a lot more.

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Infections like Clostridium difficile, also commonly called C. diff, are often induced by antibiotic use. Once the healthy gut bacteria is depleted opportunistic infections like C. diff run rampant. Patients who have a history of infections like C. diff often have recurrent infections that occur after antibiotic use for a completely unrelated issue.

Antibiotic resistance is also an ongoing concern, as 2 million people in the US become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics yearly. As a result, 23,000 of those infected will die, and alternatives are only rolling in slowly. A new study found that roughly 25% of first line antibiotics fail to treat pneumonia. In these cases, more or different antibiotics were needed, or the patient’s condition worsened. Experts are worried that the failed antibiotic therapy could be related to bacterial resistance in the community.

How can you protect yourself?

Luckily, there are a lot of things we can do to protect ourselves and those around us from the negative effects of antibiotics. Do the following things to help make antibiotics your friend rather than your enemy:

  1. Sniffle, sneeze, no antibiotics, please. If you have a viral illness, such as the common cold or the flu, antibiotics won’t help.
  2. Ask about alternative treatment options. Often times there are other viable treatment options. Be open to them. If all else fails you can always take the antibiotics.
  3. Be informed. Know the medication you are taking and its common side effects. How long should you take it? What if you miss a dose? Have a thorough discussion with your physician about the medication you’re being prescribed.

Antibiotics are more than necessary for the average person and help make treating common illnesses simple and effective. Striking a balance with antibiotic use is the key - make sure to discuss with your physician before changing your treatment plan.