What You Really Need To Know About Antibiotic Resistance

Antibiotic resistance is a global concern, but few people understand its implications. A World Health Organization (WHO) survey revealed that two-thirds of people believe it's safe to take antibiotics as prescribed. Moreover, 64% of respondents thought antibiotics could treat a cold or flu. These misconceptions contribute to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which is "one of the greatest challenges for public health today," says Dr. Margaret Chan, the former director-general of the WHO.

Antibiotics fight bacterial infections and some are only effective against certain bacteria, such as E. coli or Streptococcus. However, none of these medications can treat viral infections, points out the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Simply put, taking antibiotics when you have a common cold or runny nose won't help. Likewise, most cases of bronchitis or a sore throat don't require antibiotic treatment.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that over 30% of all antibiotics prescribed in the U.S. are unnecessary. For example, some healthcare providers prescribe fluoroquinolones for urinary tract infections, bronchitis, or sinusitis despite their potential side effects. This class of drugs can lead to nerve, tendon, and muscle damage and should only be used as a last resort. On top of that, antibiotics are often used for longer than necessary, according to the CDC.

Antibiotic resistance is a serious global health concern

Most antibiotics are strong enough to kill the bacteria responsible for meningitis, kidney infections, and other conditions, explains WebMD. These medications saved millions of lives over the past century, but their overuse led to the development of microbes that fail to respond to treatment. Bacteria are constantly evolving and can develop defense mechanisms that ensure their survival. For example, superbugs are resistant to more than one antimicrobial agent, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Antibiotic-resistant infections kill more than 700,000 people each year — and this number is expected to reach 10 million by 2050, reports UNEP. Some bacteria neutralize the effects of antibiotics and continue to spread throughout the body (via Drugs.com). Others can remove the drug from their cells or pass their DNA to other bacteria. As a result, pneumonia and other infections are becoming increasingly difficult to treat, Dr. Margaret Chan told the WHO.

Antimicrobial resistance can develop following a single course of antibiotics, warns Yonatan Grad, an assistant professor of immunology and infectious diseases. "Our results show that most antibiotic use is occasional — by people taking just one antibiotic course in a year — and that this occasional use is more closely linked with antibiotic resistance than intense, repeated use," he said in an interview with the World Economic Forum. The takeaway here is that antibiotics are not a cure-all and should not be used as such.