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Healthline Connects
Healthline Connects

A Word on Antibiotic Overuse

The data may be new, but the issue has become a perennial one: the overuse of antibiotics. Earlier this week, the University of Nebraska reported the results of two national surveys on the issue. These polls have estimated that between approximately 70 to 80 percent of physician visits for sinus infections resulted in a prescription for antibiotics.

The problem lies in the fact that these medications are designed only to attack bacteria, not viruses. Yet, it is viruses which cause the overwhelming majority of sinus infections (often referred to as a "cold" or "the flu"). So, what is the harm? The answer is a phenomenon known as bacterial resistance to antibiotics.

Resistance occurs because there are millions of “healthy” bacteria which live symbiotically within us. These bacteria help us to live normally, and we allow them the same in return. When the occasional unhealthy strain arises and causes disease, we can knock that strain out with antibiotics. Unfortunately, testing for unhealthy strains of bacteria can take days to weeks. Hence, the concept of a “magic bullet” is exceptionally attractive in acute illness, both to patient and caregiver alike.

But if we take antibiotics when unhealthy bacteria are not causing trouble, we only hurt the healthy bacteria in our bodies. Naturally, our healthy bacteria begin to fight back, and they find ways to avoid succumbing to antibiotics. It is only a matter of time before these antibiotic resistant, healthy bacteria become antibiotic resistant unhealthy bacteria. The result is a disease-causing bug that can be treated with few or no available medications. Such drug-resistant strains represent a potent danger, both to self and to others: and especially to those whose immune systems are most vulnerable.

Antibiotic resistance is not a theoretical phenomenon. Resistant strains of bacteria currently thrive in both community and hospital settings. The overuse of antibiotics is a consistent factor in the cultivation of such widespread resistance; it is also a preventable one.

What can be done to help curb antibiotic resistance? Education is crucial, but remembering to act on such knowledge is vastly more difficult and more important.

Perhaps steering clear of contributing to antibiotic resistance can be accomplished by thinking of the issue in terms of balance. We should only take medicines that help bring our bodies back into balance. If we take or prescribe medicines that do nothing to target the appropriate disease, the body can only suffer a further disruption of equilibrium.

The phenomenon of antibiotic resistance is one very important and concrete consequence to upsetting the delicate balance in our bodies.

Photo courtesy of the Nemours Foundation and KidsHealth.
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The Healthline Editorial team writes about the latest health news, policy, and research.