When you have a bacterial illness like strep throat, antibiotics can cure your infection and help you feel better quickly. However, when used improperly, antibiotics can cause more harm than good.
Though sometimes antibiotics are necessary, taking them too often or for the wrong reasons can help create strains of bacteria that antibiotics cannot treat. This evolution of the bacteria’s ability to defeat the medicine designed to fight it is called antibiotic resistance.
“Antibiotic resistance is a growing global issue. Antibiotics are important for us because they are the only agents we can use to treat infections,” said Patricia Orajaka, Iredell Health System’s antibiotic stewardship pharmacist.
Antibiotics are used to treat non-viral infections caused by bacteria or fungi, like skin infections, strep throat, and some respiratory illnesses.
If you have an infection caused by a virus, such as the flu or common cold, antibiotics will not help.
Every time you take an antibiotic you do not need, like for a cold, you increase the risk of antibiotic resistance. So, when you do have an illness that can benefit from an antibiotic, the medicine may not work as well.
“Let’s say you took an antibiotic that was not necessary. Other bacteria could then come into play, and the antibiotic you took would not be effective because the bacteria has already been exposed to the antibiotic before,” said Orajaka.
In the case that you do need an antibiotic, like for a bacterial infection, it’s crucial to take your medication for the length and amount your provider prescribed, even if you start feeling better after a few days.
“You need to take your antibiotic for the duration your provider tells you so that it can kill all of the bacteria creating the infection,” said Orajaka.
“The bacteria you are taking the antibiotic for is already exposed to the antibiotic. Therefore, by not finishing your course, it poses a risk that your infection could come back, and the bacteria may potentially be resistant to that antibiotic,” she added.
Finishing your entire prescription lowers the risk that any bacteria left in your body will become resistant.
If you have stopped taking an antibiotic early in the past and have leftover pills, do not take these for a later illness.
The old antibiotic may not be appropriate for the illness you have, and you could be experiencing the side effects from a medication that you do not even need.
Even if it is the appropriate medication for your illness, there is probably not enough remaining to completely kill the surviving bacteria. And, the surviving bacteria may be more likely to become resistant to antibiotics. The antibiotic could also be expired, so it might not be as strong anymore.
“Ultimately, when you are sick, it’s important for you to go to the doctor to find out what is really going on,” said Orajaka.
Let’s say you take antibiotics and have a resistant bug. Like in most sicknesses, you spread germs to others. In the same way, you can spread your resistant bug to others. Even if someone did not take or misuse antibiotics, you can give them the resistant bug that antibiotics will not treat. The bacteria evolves and transfers.
“Antibiotic resistance is truly a global concept. Even though there is resistance in individuals, it has a global effect. At some point in time, especially with the antibiotics we use frequently, bacteria is going to get smarter, and the antibiotic will stop working,” said Randi Raynor, Director of Pharmacy at Iredell.
According to Orajaka, there are not a lot of new antibiotics being developed. Therefore, the bacteria that we are already exposed to have limited resources.
“If those bacteria become resistant to the medicine we have available, people with severe infections may not have the ideal antibiotic for treatment. If we are unable to treat the patient’s infection, it increases their risk of long term consequences of infection or even death,” she said.
To combat the global issue of antibiotic resistance, Iredell Memorial Hospital has an antibiotic stewardship program that emphasizes effective antibiotic use by ensuring patients get the appropriate medication at the right dosage for the proper duration.
When a patient in the hospital is on day three of antibiotics, pharmacists review the antibiotics and the patient’s infection. They see if the patient still needs the medication and ensure they are taking the most specific type possible.
“There are antibiotics that are very broad and cover everything, and there are antibiotics that are more specific. We try to choose the most specific antibiotic possible for that particular patient,” said Orajaka.
Some antibiotics at Iredell are restricted to just infectious disease providers. This way, if you have a severe infection, an infectious disease provider can prescribe the appropriate medication for you.
Every year, Iredell Memorial Hospital conducts an antibiogram, a vital surveillance tool in the fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This shows what percentage of a particular bacteria is susceptible to an antibiotic. It ensures Iredell is providing the proper medication for that patient’s infection.
“Overall, we want to let people in the community know that not every infection requires an antibiotic. Just because the doctor does not give you an antibiotic does not mean that that was a bad visit. The doctor may feel that based on your symptoms, an antibiotic may not be needed or the infection is not severe and your body can fight it on its own,” said Orajaka.