An antibiotic is defined in a medical dictionary as a noun, ‘a substance produced by, or a semi-synthetic derived from, a microorganism and able, in dilute solution, to inhibit or kill another microorganism‘. On the word origin side, we find that it emerged in 1894 as an adjective meaning ‘destructive to microorganisms‘ from the French ‘antibiotique‘ (c. 1889), from anti + Greek biotikos, ‘fit for life‘. As the word we all know it as today, it was first recorded in 1941, in the findings of Selman Waksman, the discoverer of streptomycin. We know, too, it is something used in the treatment of infectious diseases.
Okay, then. So? What are we to do with this information about antibiotics?
Can you imagine life today without them? Antibiotics, properly prescribed, properly taken, are remarkable, lifesaving drugs. They truly are. But here we are, in 2011, facing a global health problem. According to experts at the Mayo Clinic, “nearly all significant bacterial infections in the world are becoming resistant to commonly used antibiotics”. This is frightening. Further, our persistent misuse of antibiotics is helping create resistant microorganisms that, in turn, cause new, treatment-resistant infections. Remember the notion that ‘resistance is futile’? Forget it! In the case of infection, resistance is not only not futile, it’s a rousing success! For the germs, that is.
Back to us. What does any of this have to do with us? Believe it or not, anything we can do to support and promote the thoughtful, proper use of antibiotics is a good thing. Antibiotics are unlike many of the other drugs or medicines we take. There is no doubt, according to the Mayo Clinic, that ‘repeated and improper use of antibiotics is the primary cause of the increase in the number of drug-resistant bacteria’ worldwide. We very much need these medicines to work when they should, and we also very much need to use them only when we should. Here are some ideas for responsible antibiotic management:
- Understand when antibiotics are appropriate treatment. You will not need to take antibiotics every time you are ill. Antibiotics are great for most bacterial infections. They are not useful against viral infections – colds, acute bronchitis, the flu. And some common bacterial ailments (mild ear infections, for one) do not require antibiotics for treatment and symptom relief.
- If you have a viral illness, do not ask your doctor for antibiotics. Don’t pressure him or her for them, either. There are lots of effective ways to relieve your symptoms: saline nasal sprays, lemon, honey and hot water for your throat, compresses for your headache. You and your doctor can go over these and other ways to help you feel better.
- Be scrupulous. Take antibiotics precisely as prescribed. Dosage and prescription instructions are meant to be followed to the letter. If you are unsure what the doctor intends, ask again and again until you understand exactly how and when a medication is to be taken. Do not stop treatment early because you are feeling better. Only a full course of antibiotics will kill all the harmful bacteria. Shorten that course and what happens? The weaker ones die off, but the stronger ones survive – not a good plan.
- Under no circumstances should you take antibiotics without a prescription. Yesterday, we talked about hanging on to half a bottle of an old prescription of antibiotics, just in case. Bad idea. Do not use leftover meds. Do not give them to anyone else. The antibiotic may not be appropriate for a future illness, for one thing. And for another, you probably do not have enough of the drug to kill all the germs in question. And they may be well past their expiration date. It becomes a vicious cycle.
- Prevention always beats cure. Believe it or not, good hygiene still goes a very long way in infection prevention. Thoroughly wash your hands and wrists with soap and water, especially after using the toilet, changing a baby, blowing your nose or handling raw meat or poultry. Be careful to thoroughly clean food preparation surfaces. And plain, old soap and water is generally all you need.