When a doctor prescribes antibiotics to a patient with bacterial infection, he couples it with strict advice not to skip a dose and to complete the prescribed amount of doses. What is this for? It makes sure the patient completely recovers and, equally important, to prevent antibiotic resistance.
Antibiotic resistance is when an antibiotic drug can no longer treat an illness because the bacteria is no longer affected by the drug. This happens because the bacteria has changed in some way that it can now protect itself from the drug or neutralize the antibiotic.
Being antibiotic resistant, “infections became more difficult to treat, we have to use agents that are more toxic and more expensive, and we have to use them longer,” says Arjun Srinivasan, MD, associate director of infection prevention programs of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
It can cause more serious illness, can prolong recovery and can even be fatal when infection becomes severe. “The scariest situation is one we're seeing in hospitals in America, where patients are acquiring infections and there are no antibiotic options. We have a disease that should be treatable, and we now encounter situations where they are not treatable,” says Dr. Srinivasan.
According to a 2013 report by the CDC, at least 23,000 people die every year due to antibiotic-resistant infections, and that’s in the US alone.
Think of antibiotic resistance this way: by improper use of antibiotics (e.g. stopping the prescription midway), the patient has given the bacteria the advantage to find a way to become resistant to the drug.
The bacteria then survives, cannot be treated the same way, and is free to multiply and grow unhindered. What’s more, these antibiotic resistant bacteria can be passed on from one person to another.
How do we prevent this? Through the appropriate and proper use of antibiotics, often called antibiotic stewardship. “The fact that bacteria develop resistance to a drug is normal and expected. However, the way that drugs are used affects how quickly and to what extent drug resistance occurs,” explains Mayo Clinic.
Antibiotic stewardship “can help preserve the effectiveness of current antibiotics, extend their life span and protect the public from antibiotic-resistant infections,” adds Mayo Clinic.
Practice antibiotic stewardship by following these steps:
1. Only take antibiotics when prescribed by your doctor. Never self-diagnose. “We've seen a big resistance to amoxicillin for a number of different types of infections,” says Lauri Hicks, DO, a medical epidemiologist from the CDC.
Amoxicillin is an antibiotic to treat infection caused by bacteria such as tonsillitis, pneumonia, gonorrhea, and infections of the ear, nose, throat, skin, or urinary tract.
2. Take the appropriate daily dosage. Always take the full prescription even if you're feeling better. If you forget to take a dose, ask your doctor what you should do.
3. Never take antibiotics prescribed for another person.
4. If for some reason you have leftover antibiotics, throw them away. In the same light, do not take leftover antibiotics for a later illness. “They may not be the correct antibiotic and would not be a full course of treatment,” says Mayo Clinic.
5. Do not insist for antibiotics when your doctor does not prescribe them. “Taking antibiotics when you have a virus (a cold or flu, for example) may do more harm than good,” says the CDC, “Taking antibiotics when they are not needed increases your risk of getting an infection later that resists antibiotic treatment.
6. Prevent infections by regularly washing your hands, avoiding contact with sick people and keeping your vaccinations up to date as some vaccines protect from bacterial infections, advises the World Health Organization.