Repeated, improper use of antibiotics—in both humans and animals—drives drug resistance among bacteria and has made some forms of bacteria virtually indestructible to modern medicine.
These microscopic “superbugs” sicken up to 2 million Americans a year and kill at least 23,000, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While some businesses, political representatives, and members of the medical community are taking preventive and proactive steps to stop these dangerous and costly infections, patients and consumers can take antibiotic stewardship into their own hands by making informed decisions at the grocery store, at home, and at the doctor’s office.
Consumers speak the loudest with their dollars.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are given to food animals for growth promotion and disease prevention.
Antibiotics are the only kinds of drugs whose use by one life form affects the health of another, and the more they’re used, the less effective they become.
The regular administration of antibiotics in low doses—such as the way they are given to livestock and poultry in their feed and water—gives bacteria ample experience to evolve around them. These bacteria survive in the animals’ bodies and are still present when their meat makes it into stores.
About 48 million people get food poisoning each year, and some bacteria found on raw meat can be deadly. Last year, the FDA announced drug-resistant bacterial contamination in 81 percent of ground turkey, 69 percent of pork chops, 55 percent of ground beef, and 39 percent of chicken sampled in grocery stores.
Every time you shop for meat at your neighborhood grocer, you could make a decision that can interrupt this process: You can help protect yourself by choosing antibiotic-free meats, which are available in more grocery stores and restaurants than ever before.
Chains such as Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Kroger, Costco, and Safeway offer antibiotic-free meats. If you can’t find them at your neighborhood store, ask the grocer to consider carrying these items.
Avoid meat from factory farms that rely on antibiotics to make up for cramped, unsanitary conditions—a practice that can lead to antibiotic resistance. For example, Foster Farms chickens raised this way carried multidrug-resistant Salmonella that sickened 574 people last year.
But buyer beware: Much like the term “all natural,” many antibiotic-related statements on packaging can be misleading or are undefined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service lists “no antibiotics added” as an acceptable term for meat and poultry labels. The term may be used on labels “for meat or poultry products if sufficient documentation is provided by the producer to the Agency demonstrating that the animals were raised without antibiotics.”
Concerned with antibiotic-related labeling, Consumers Union—Consumer Reports’ advocacy arm—sent a letter to Tom Vilsack, head of the USDA, for clarifications regarding certain claims found on food packaging, such as “No Antibiotic Growth Promotants,” “Antibiotic Free,” and “No Antibiotic Residues.” Vilsack responded that “raised without antibiotics” means no antibiotics were used in the animal’s feed or water, or via injections, over the course of its life.
Washing your hands often while preparing food and always after handling raw meat, to avoid cross-contamination between uncooked meat and other foods, can also help reduce your risk of getting sick.
Antibacterial cleaning products aren’t as protective as their ads claim.
Use antibacterial products sparingly and only when appropriate. Regular soap is a natural antibiotic, and experts say proper hand washing is enough to keep people safe.
“Really, plain soap and water works really well for almost everything. Using it constantly is a good thing,” Dr. Michael Bell, deputy director of the CDC’s Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion, said. “For routine day in and day out use, at my house I use a nice soap that smells like flowers. That's fine. You don't need anything special.”
Bell recommends using alcohol-based hand sanitizer when traveling through the airport to prevent spreading disease. Antibacterial soaps, he said, are useful for cleansing your body before surgery.
According to the CDC, studies have shown there’s no added health benefit to using antibacterial soap in everyday situations. And lab studies have linked antibacterial chemicals in cleaning products to bacterial resistance.
The FDA proposed a rule in December that would require antibacterial soap manufacturers to prove the safety of their products in order to keep them on the market as labeled.
“Due to consumers’ extensive exposure to the ingredients in antibacterial soaps, we believe there should be a clearly demonstrated benefit from using antibacterial soap to balance any potential risk,” Dr. Janet Woodcock, director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said in a statement.
Being your own best advocate can help keep you safe.
Other drivers of drug resistance in bacteria are the improper use and the overuse of antibiotics in humans.
One survey found that 36 percent of Americans incorrectly believe antibiotics are an effective treatment for viral infections.
Requesting antibiotics from your doctor for treatment of a viral infection—especially the common cold, flu, or acute bronchitis—won’t do your symptoms any good. Most common infections are best treated with over-the-counter products and ample rest.
Or, as Dr. Anna Julien, an emergency care physician, tells her patients, “Your body will naturally take care of this if you take care of yourself: Sleep more, get more fluids, take a day or two off work to recover, and stop running around stressing yourself out over the little things.”
Many problems associated with antibiotic use can be prevented if the patient acts as his or her own best advocate, Bell said. Experts offer the following suggestions:
- Don’t demand antibiotics if your doctor says they’re unnecessary.
- If your doctor prescribes antibiotics, ask if he or she is certain the infection is bacterial.
- Take all antibiotics as prescribed, and always complete the full course of medication.
- Don’t give your antibiotics to someone else, and don’t take antibiotics that had been prescribed for another person.
- Make sure your doctor has washed his or her hands thoroughly before performing a procedure, such as inserting a catheter—and ask every day whether the catheter should come out.
- Ask your healthcare team members what they are doing to help prevent antibiotic resistance and whether their facility has an antibiotic stewardship program.
- If you can, choose a hospital with an antibiotic stewardship program.
- Take someone with you to your doctor appointments. “Go with a loved one,” Bell said. “Take turns being the bad guy.”
Brian Krans is an award-winning investigative reporter and former Senior Writer at Healthline.com. He was part of the two-person team that launched Healthline News in January 2013. Since then, his work has been featured on Yahoo! News, the Huffington Post, Fox News and other outlets. Prior to coming to Healthline, Brian was a staff writer at the Rock Island Argus and The Dispatch newspapers where he covered crime, government, politics, and other beats. His journalism experience has taken him to the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast and into the U.S. Capitol while Congress was in session. He is a graduate of Winona State University, which has named a journalism award after him. Besides his reporting, Brian is the author of three novels. He is currently touring the country to promote his latest book, "Assault Rifles & Pedophiles: An American Love Story." When not traveling, he lives in Oakland, Calif. He has a dog named Friday.