Antibiotics: When They’re Helpful and When They’re Dangerous

In decades past, doctors used little consideration when prescribing antibiotics. The miracle cures that destroyed life-risking infections were widely available and worked well. Often prescribed merely on suspicion of an infection, or even to comfort worried parents, antibiotics became ubiquitous for almost any ailment. What went unnoticed was that microbes were evolving to resist and survive treatment. Higher doses worked for a while, but today antibiotic resistant microbes cause serious illnesses — even death.

Modern antibiotics include the penicillins and many others made from natural or synthetic processes. There are two broad groups: bactericidals that kill bacteria, and bacteriostatic that agents simply slow growth.

The risk to individuals and populations stems from the misuse of antibiotics. When doctors prescribe antibiotics, the medicine attacks all bacteria – good and bad. After the antibiotics lose strength, the strongest and fittest of the bacteria remain – and they are often the bad type. These then reproduce a new strain, and a more antibiotic resistant one at that. Moving from host to host, harmful bacteria continue to evolve. The new strains become increasingly resistant, and then antibiotics begin to fail.

They simply adapt and continue to survive and duplicate. Once only a problem in healthcare facilities, Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) is infecting individuals in the broader community. In this example, as with most bacteria, medical science is having difficulty keeping up with the quickly evolving microorganisms.

The most common mistake physicians made in the past was prescribing antibiotics for viral infections. A virus easily survives any dose of antibiotics. Taking the antibiotics only kills bacteria that play an important role in health, and using antibiotics too often unnecessarily leads to bacterial resistance. Worse yet, not finishing a full course when needed leaves the fittest bacteria to reproduce. In the face of resistant bacteria, doctors are forced to use riskier and more expensive antibiotics, often with dramatic side effects.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers the problem "one of the world's most critical public health threats." According to the CDC, "Widespread overuse and inappropriate use of antibiotics continues to fuel an increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria." They warn parents against using antibiotics unnecessarily, and that adverse drug reactions are the most common reason children go to the emergency room.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says, "Antibiotics are powerful drugs, but they are not the cure for all that ails you." Further, "almost all" bacteria strains are "becoming resistant to antibiotics." The FDA goes on to advise doctors in the "smart use" of antibiotics — use them only when absolutely necessary.

There are emerging controversies in regard to antibiotic use in livestock productions. Typically, farm animals are given antibiotics to prevent disease and bolster profits. Animals in the close quarters of the feedlots or hatcheries easily share bacteria, so to avoid the inevitable they are fed a constant stream of antibiotics. As in human populations the bacteria are developing greater resistance; now there is an additional threat of bacterial strains crossing over to humans.

Antibiotic resistance is a worldwide problem with simple solutions. Being aware as a parent or patient is critical. Doctors need to prescribe with greater care by targeting specific bacteria. Use antibiotics only if needed and take the full course, which can prevent bad bacteria from producing new strains. As science struggles to develop stronger antibiotics, we should follow the new protocols to promote public health. Unfortunately, like many new concepts, antibiotic resistance has yet to become common knowledge. Education is key.


Wikipedia – Antibiotics
Center for Disease Control
Wikipedia – Antibiotic Misuse
Food and Drug Administration
MayoClinic – Antibiotics

About the Author:
Iris Stone has worked as a freelance writer since 2011. Her writing has included content on medicine, healthcare, and education, although her interests are wide and varied. Prior to breaking into the freelance biz, Iris worked in sales for a health company and prior to that as an assistant in a chiropractic office. She is currently attending George Mason University and is majoring in Political Science. Check out her Google+ profile.

Find A Degree is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.