The Incredible Overuse
of Antibiotics
By Mitzi Perdue
Scripps Howard News Service
Would you like to improve your health? Save money? And do something important for the environment at the same time? Dr. Bernadette Albanese, a pediatrician from Johns Hopkins University, has a suggestion for you.
She wants everyone to avoid overusing antibiotics. While it's true that antibiotics can fight bacterial infections, they are 100 percent ineffective against viruses. "It's a medical fact," she emphasizes, "that they do no more good against viruses than a sugar pill."
She goes on to say that it's viruses that cause all colds, most sore throats and most coughs. "The body's immune system takes care of them," she says, adding, "In most cases, all you have to do is wait a few days for the infection to run its course."
But what if it's your child and you really want to do everything you can for him or her. It wouldn't hurt, would it, to give some antibiotics anyway, just in case? Until recently, most people, including physicians, would have answered that there would be no harm done, even if no good was done, either. Today a different picture is emerging. Overprescription of antibiotics means that the rate of drug-resistant bacteria is increasing dramatically.
"Because we've used antibiotics so liberally," she says, "the bacteria have developed ways of resisting their effects. Unfortunately, the resistant bacteria are still available to cause infection."
One example of this is the bacteria pneumococcus. It's the usual cause of ear infections, pneumonia and meningitis. "In the past," says Albanese, "we could treat this bacteria with penicillin." Snapping her fingers, she says, "It was no big deal. But," she continues, "today 23 percent of them are resistant to penicillin."
The pneumococcus bacteria now shows resistance to our second and third lines of antibiotic defenses. Some have developed resistance to virtually all the available antibiotics except one -- and it can only be administered intravenously in hospitals.
"If this continues," says Albanese, "we may have to send children to the hospital each time they have an ear infection rather than treating them at home with oral medications."
That's one example of what happens when our arsenal of antibiotics becomes compromised. The danger, however, isn't just to society. It's also to the individual. "When you overuse antibiotics," she says, "you increase the risk of developing an infection yourself due to a resistant bacteria."
When you use an antibiotic unnecessarily, you are almost certainly creating antibiotic-resistant bacteria in your own system. "If I culture your throat right now," she begins her explanation, "I could probably find pneumococcus bacteria and other bacteria as well. This is normal. We all have them. But if I keep giving you antibiotics, the only bacteria that survive are resistant ones."
Albanese says that it's common to develop an infection from your own bacteria, which is what happens with ear infections or even meningitis. "When you overuse antibiotics," she warns, "you increase the risk that your infection will be caused by a resistant bacteria, and it may be harder to treat or even untreatable."
Albanese worries about the enormous number of unnecessarily prescribed antibiotics. The average child will get between two and nine colds per year and, on average, doctors will prescribe antibiotics in half these cases. That means 18 million unnecessary prescriptions each year.
Doctors throughout the country are being urged not to overprescribe antibiotics. Albanese hopes that you'll be part of the solution and understand that antibiotics are inappropriate for a cold or any other viral infection.