GO EASY ON antibiotics
Antibiotics are our go-to pills when we are sick. But, in extreme cases, immune systems can become resistant, preventing us from enjoying their full benefits
When you’re feeling sick, chances are you’ll consult a GP and ask for antibiotics so you can get back to work as soon as possible. But, depending on your illness, antibiotics may not always be necessary, and if not used correctly, can make them less effective the next time you need them. So what are antibiotics, what role do they play in our health systems, do they always work or can our bodies learn to resist them over time? Antibiotics are substances that are used to either destroy bacteria or hinder their growth through various mechanisms. “They are effective for bacterial infections and should not be used for viral infections,” says Dr Fezile Mkhize, a Joburg-based medical doctor. He explains that antibiotics work by stopping the bacteria from growing and multiplying. Some of the more common infections that are treated with antibiotics include bronchitis, pneumonia, and urinary tract infections.
“Antibiotics are our means of fighting back against bacterial infections that could potentially cause widespread deaths; the best example of this is the bubonic plague (the black plague), which resulted in the deaths of millions of people (in the 14th century),” Dr Mkhize explains. He continues: “Today there are antibiotics that are able to treat and prevent the occurrence of this devastating event. However, with the growing problem of antibiotic resistance, there’s the looming possibility of another pandemic. It then becomes important to ensure that these pivotal tools for fighting against these potential catastrophes are used only when required to prevent them becoming ineffective.”
So, now the added problem of antibiotic resistance. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the USA describes it as “one of the most urgent threats to the public’s health.” The organisation continues: “Antibiotic resistant bacteria can cause illnesses that were once easily treatable with antibiotics to become untreatable, leading to dangerous infections. Antibioticresistant bacteria are often more difficult to kill and more expensive to treat.”
What causes this potentially lifethreatening matter? The World Health Organisation (WHO) says: “Antibiotic resistance is accelerated by the misuse and overuse of antibiotics, as well as poor infection prevention and control,” it states on its website, stressing that it can affect anyone, regardless of age or nationality.
“A growing list of infections – such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, blood poisoning, gonorrhoea, and foodborne diseases – are becoming harder, and sometimes impossible, to treat, as antibiotics become less effective,” the global health body warns.
WHAT YOU COULD BE DOING WRONG
Even though WHO says this can happen naturally, the misuse of antibiotics is usually one of the leading causes of resistance. “Antibiotic resistance is when bacteria adapt to these medicines, which they were once susceptible to. The over-prescription of antibiotics is also another factor,” says Dr Mkhize. “These are all points that allow for antibiotics to be ineffective when treating infected organisms. This, in turn, exposes the bacteria to the antibiotic over repeated or prolonged periods and can result in the person’s eventual resistance to that antibiotic,” he adds.
Popping antibiotics unneccesarily does lead to resistance, Dr Mkhize warns. “The obvious benefit of antibiotics is that they target bacterial infections and prevent potentially devastating outcomes, but the issue comes in that these are very powerful medicines and can at times target the beneficial organisms (bacteria and yeasts) in your body,” he says. “It’s very important to take them only when necessary, and even then, ensure you are informed of any side effects that could occur,” he cautions.
Not completing the full course
As tempting as it is to stop taking medication as soon as you feel better, Dr Pule Hlungwane, a GP, urges individuals to complete the full prescribed antibiotic course. “It’s necessary to take full treatment as this helps 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,” he cautions. “If you fail to complete a course of antibiotics, some of the bacteria causing the infection may survive and these will be the ones with the greatest resistance to the antibiotic. As the surviving bacteria reproduce, the resulting infection would not be treatable with the same antibiotic,” Dr Hlungwane explains.
Antibiotics should not be the only solution to all your health problems. Have a thorough conversation with your doctor about other ways of preventing illnesses and infections, Dr Mkhize urges. “Discuss alternatives that can work for you,” he adds. ■