Antibiotics and the Resistance? Which Side Are We On?

The word ‘resistance’, for me,  first summons up images from films about World War II, of the lean, black-clad men and women of battle-ravaged Europe who fought off their occupiers with fearless dedication and personal sacrifice.  Or sometimes, it conjures Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in ‘It Takes a Thief‘, as former underground soldiers and socialites play out an elaborate game of cat and mouse in the south of France.  And, of course, there’s always ‘Casablanca’. This notion of resistance is romantic and confirming.  We see the good guys prevail.  Antibiotic resistance, on the other hand, is anything but positive.  In fact, it’s a growing menace, a global health problem.  Heard of MRSA?  A new form is now causing infections in healthy people who are not in hospitals, who are not health care workers.  The good guys are not prevailing in this resistance.

Properly used, antibiotics are wonder drugs, absolute lifesavers.  Their misuse, however, has become a big, big problem, one that affects us all.  How did this particular war get started?  When antibiotics are repeatedly used to treat things they simply cannot treat – the flu, colds, other viral infections – they become less and less effective against the bacteria they are meant to fight.

Another problem occurs when antibiotics are not taken precisely as prescribed.  We’ve all done this one: the doctor has prescribed a course of treatment but we take the antibiotic for a few days, feel great, so stop taking them.  In fact, we save the rest, just in case, for some future ailment.  Because we have not taken the full course of treatment, only some of the bacteria are dealt with.  Infectious organisms adapt with amazing speed.  The surviving bacteria become stronger and more resistant.    They can spread to others.

When the ever-stronger bacteria become resistant to first line treatments, doctors have to try less conventional medications and treatments, most of which are expensive and bring with them serious side effects and risks.  In the US alone, thousands of  patients die every year from antibiotic-resistant infections they have contracted while ill and hospitalized.  We have already mentioned MRSA – methicillin-resistant Staphlycoccus aureus – but this is not the only scary one out there.  The drugs needed to combat the drug-resistant forms of tuberculosis (TB), for example, are vastly more expensive than those used to treat non-resistant TB.  Not only that, the side effects are often devastating and the course of treatment is long, up to two years.  Two years!

So one kind of resistance brings freedom and triumph, while another brings death, extended hospital stays, soaring medical expenses, toxic treatments, invasive testing and re-testing,  lost income – it goes on and on.

Enough.  Is there anything we can do?  Fortunately, yes, there are things we can do to resist the resistance, if you will.

First of all, we all need to respect the training and knowledge of our health care professionals.  If you find it hard to trust your present physician or heath care provider, get a new one.  You and your doctors are a team. If you doubt their abilities or knowledge, if you will not follow their directions and guidelines, you’re in trouble.   Of course it’s great to check out websites and do your research and keep up with health news and developments, but the bottom line is simple:  your doctor or health care provider is in charge of your treatment and medications, not some online guru or practitioner.  And not you, even if you are really well informed and experienced.

So, follow your doctor’s directions.  Take medications exactly as prescribed.  Communicate  any symptoms, side effects or reactions.  Tell him or her what else you are taking.  If you really cannot work with the doctor or doctors you are seeing now, find a practice you are comfortable with, for the sake of your own health, and that of others as well.

Next, understand how antibiotics work.  They are brilliant against bacterial infections, some parasites and certain fungal infections.  They do not work against viruses.  In fact, taking an antibiotic for a viral infection not only won’t help you feel any better, it can support more antibiotic resistance – the wrong side in this case.  This may help:

Bacterial infections (antibiotics effective)

Viral infections (antibiotics NOT effective)
Tomorrow, some easy do’s and don’ts that will help maintain antibiotic effectiveness so they work when we need them!

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