Antibiotic awareness 101

Antibiotic Awareness 101

In commemoration of “Get Smart about Antibiotics Week,” November 14-20, is providing you with useful information about the appropriate use of antibiotics. Be part of the solution!

If you developed a serious infection, such as pneumonia or sepsis (bloodstream infection), prior to 1942, chances are you might not have survived. That is because antibiotics used to treat such infections were not widely available before 1942. That year, Streptomycin and Tetracycline were discovered, and a scientist named Selman Waksman coined the term “antibiotics” for these new wonder drugs. Prior to that, in 1928, while experimenting on the flu virus, Sir Alexander Fleming stumbled upon Penicillin, the very first antibiotic. This happened while he was working with a common fungus, Penicillium, in the lab and noted that it destroyed the Staphylococcus bacteria on a culture plate. He is quoted as saying, “One sometimes finds what one is not looking for.” This amazing and important accident is one of the most significant medical discoveries of the 20th century.

Germs fight back

It didn’t take long for germs to adapt and outsmart these drugs by developing resistance. Antibiotic resistance has increased dramatically over the last decade. Nearly all significant bacterial infections throughout the world are becoming resistant to the most commonly prescribed antibiotics. Each time an antibiotic is taken, the sensitive bacteria are killed but resistant ones are left to grow and multiply.

The scope of the problem

In 2008, 142,000 patients came to an emergency department as a result of adverse events caused by antibiotics. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 50 percent of antibiotics used in hospitals are either unnecessary or inappropriate. In physicians’ offices, more than half of prescribed antibiotics are used to treat coughs, colds, and sore throats, most of which are caused by viruses.

It is important to note that antibiotics have no effect on viruses. It is also common for pediatricians to prescribe unnecessary antibiotics , possibly due to pressure from parents. A study showed that antibiotics are prescribed 65 percent of the time if pediatricians feel that parents expect them to, rather than 12 percent of the time if they feel the parents do not expect them to. The CDC reports that children have up to nine colds each year, most of which are due to viruses; yet, four out of 10 children are prescribed an antibiotic by an outpatient provider. Unfortunately, too often antibiotics are given when they are not needed, continued when longer than necessary, and given at too high a dose.

What is the price of antibiotic resistance?

Infections due to antibiotic resistant organisms in the U.S. result in $20 billion in excess healthcare costs, $35 billion in societal costs, and 8 million additional hospital days. Greater than 1.1 billion unnecessary antibiotics are prescribed for upper respiratory infections. It is clear that antibiotics are a valuable shared resource, which is unfortunately becoming a scarce resource due to inappropriate and careless use.

What can I do to help?

The first step you can take is to protect yourself from getting an infection in the first place. Remember to practice the basics:

  • Clean your hands frequently with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.
  • Take good care of your body every day by eating healthy foods, exercising, and getting plenty of sleep.
  • Get vaccinated against the flu every year.

Here are some helpful updates about the flu vaccine:

  • Recently, the CDC has advised that even those who have non-severe egg allergies (e.g., hives) can receive the flu vaccine as long as they are observed by the provider at least 30 minutes after vaccination.
  • The new shot that goes under the skin (intradermal), rather than in the muscle, is approved for those 18-64 years of age.
  • Children older than 6 months and younger than 9 years should receive two doses separated by four weeks if this if the first time they have been vaccinated.
  • It is never too late to get the flu vaccine, even in January and beyond.
  • The CDC has posted Google’s Flu Vaccine finder at Both of these sites include helpful information about the flu vaccine and where to get it. National Influenza Vaccination Week, December 4-12, is an observance that highlights the importance of continuing influenza vaccination. Help spread the word to ensure others get vaccinated.

If you do get sick, remember the following advice:

  • Don’t request antibiotics for most coughs, colds, and sore throats because they won’t cure them, protect others from them, or help you feel better. Remember: “Sniffle or sneeze? No antibiotics, please!
  • Ask your provider what else you can do to relieve symptoms (e.g., increase fluids, use cool mist vaporizer or saline nose spray for nasal congestion, soothe sore throat with ice chips, use throat spray or lozenges).
  • Cover your cough and sneeze with a tissue or your sleeve, not your hands.
  • Don’t come to work or socialize if you’re sick.
  • If it is necessary to take antibiotics, take them exactly how your doctor tells you to. Don’t skip doses, and finish all of your medication, even if you start to feel better. Also, don’t share them with others or use leftovers for your next illness because this will allow bacteria to multiply and become resistant.

Antibiotics are the only drugs in which one person’s use can impact the effectiveness of another person’s use. If we do not use them wisely, society will suffer the consequences. It is difficult and expensive to develop new antibiotics, so we must preserve those we have for the future. To bring attention to the importance of proper antibiotic use, the CDC has designated a week-long educational campaign called “Get Smart about Antibiotics Week,” November 14-20. Everyone can help to share this vital message!

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