When Do You Need Antibiotics?
Since Alexander Fleming identified penicillin back in 1928, antibiotics have revolutionized medicine. But, what are antibiotics used for? And, how has overuse created a major public health threat in the United States?
What They Do
Antibiotics kill bacterial infections by causing the organisms’ cell walls to disintegrate. Most bacteria fall into two categories: Gram-negative and Gram-positive. These classifications basically refer to the type of cell wall. For instance, Streptococcus is a Gram-positive bacterium with a thin, single-layered cell walls. E. coli, on the other hand, is a Gram-negative bacterium with a less-permeable, two-layer cell wall. Doctors prescribe specific types of antibiotics based on the nature of the bacteria.
What They Cannot Do
While effective at killing serious bacterial infections, antibiotics have no effect on viral infections. Many people ask their doctors for antibiotics to treat the flu or common cold. While antibiotics may become necessary to treat secondary bacterial infections, most often, they are inappropriate for viral infections.
The Problem with Overuse
Antibiotics have saved millions of lives; however, overuse has led to so-called superbugs, which have developed resistance to common antibiotic medications. Unfortunately, as these superbugs become more prevalent, scientists are having difficulty generating new drugs to combat them. To stem the tide, doctors are becoming much more careful about prescribing antibiotics to patients who probably don’t need them.
What You Can Do
Patients have the ability to reduce the spread of antibiotic-resistant medications. First, if you are prescribed an antibiotic, take all of your pills, as directed by your physician. You should also avoid taking antibiotics unless you absolutely must. Finally, never take a friend or family member’s antibiotic medication without permission from your doctor.