We've relied on antibiotics to fight off harmful bacteria for 70 years. So what happens when they stop working?
Since the release of penicillin in the 1940s, antibiotics have been very successful in treating illnesses caused by bacterial infections such as strep throat,
pneumonia, and tuberculosis. After decades of use, however, the bacteria have evolved—and compromised the effectiveness of these medications. Now two million Americans become infected with strains of drug-resistant bacteria every year.
“As a health care community, we only have a certain amount of antibiotics available to treat bacterial infections,” says John VanDeVoort, Pharm.D., Division Director of Pharmacy for HSHS Sacred Heart and St. Joseph’s hospitals. “It’s our responsibility to use these antibiotics wisely so we can ensure their efficacy into the future.”
FINDING THE BALANCE
Antibiotic resistance is a tricky problem to address because if a doctor chooses to delay the use of antibiotics, the patient’s condition could worsen. But with each newprescription, bacteria have another chance to mutate and become more resilient. “Physicians are very much aware of the problem,” Dr. VanDeVoort says. “Their goal is to completely heal their patient with as little antibiotic use as possible. This may require some creativity.”
For most bacterial infections, there are a few different antibiotics that can address the complication. If a patient has used a certain antibiotic in the past, a doctor may opt for a different option to avoid building up a resistance. Or if it appears as though a virus is the cause of the illness, a physician might delay the use of antibiotics because they cannot be used to treat viral infections.
In order to help your physician make the best decision, it’s important for you to provide as much information about your medication history as possible, as well as to take your dosages as instructed. The World Health Organization also encourages individuals to do their part by only using antibiotics when prescribed and never sharing them with another person.To find a primary care physician who can help you manage the use of antibiotics, visit sacredhearteauclaire.org and click on “Provider Directory.”
THE PATH OF MOST RESISTANCE
The more bacteria are exposed to an antibiotic, the more likely it is for them to become resistant to the medication’s effects. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the process is fairly simple:
STEP 1: EVOLVE There are a lot of bacteria in the body, but only a few contain mutations that enable them to survive a particular antibiotic.
STEP 2: SURVIVE When an antibiotic is introduced into the system, it kills both illness-causing bacteria and good bacteria that protect the body from infection.
STEP 3: THRIVE With the good bacteria gone, the resistant bacteria are left to grow and take over.
STEP 4: SHARE The mutated bacteria then pass their drug resistance to other bacteria in the body.