Antibiotic Awareness is Key to Stopping Superbugs

3 min read

Antibiotics awareness week

Let’s get one thing straight first: Antibiotics are incredible, life-saving drugs. They’re one of the many miracles of modern medicine, and we’re fortunate to have access to them. But as Voltaire (and Uncle Ben in Spiderman) said: With great power comes great responsibility. And in the case of antibiotics, that responsibility is massive because the risk of drug resistance is so great.

Antibiotic overuse and drug resistance

Overuse of antibiotics in humans and livestock has led to the rise of “superbugs” that have adapted and outwitted frontline drugs that used to successfully treat them. In turn, this has caused a surge of drug-resistant infections worldwide. In the United States alone, there are more than 2.8 million annual infections from antibiotic-resistant bacteria, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). And more than 35,000 people die as a direct result of these infections.

If you’ve ever experienced a drug-resistant infection yourself, then you know how scary and frustrating it is to battle an ever-adapting, microscopic enemy. It can make you feel powerless. That fear is echoed by the medical community and organizations worldwide that are working to raise awareness around antibiotics and develop alternative treatments to common infections.

How to "be antibiotics aware"

Here are some simple steps you can take to protect yourself and your loved ones from drug-resistant infections.

  • Stay informed. Read up on antibiotic resistance and follow organizations like the CDC and World Health Organization (WHO), which regularly share the latest research and guidance on antibiotic resistance.
  • Always ask for labs. It’s common to walk out of a doctor’s office with a prescription before the tests are in, especially if you’re a relatively healthy person with no history of antibiotic resistance. But “common” is not necessarily safe. According to the CDC, over 30% of antibiotics are prescribed unnecessarily in outpatient settings. Requesting labs before treatment is just smart.
  • Seek out alternative treatments for mild infections. If you’re dealing with a sinus or ear infection, you may not need antibiotics to kick it. At-home remedies and over-the-counter drugs can often take on mild infections, helping you avoid unnecessary drugs. Again, always check with your doctor first before self-treating — and don’t wait to get help if your symptoms don’t improve quickly.
  • Take antibiotics exactly as prescribed. Never stop a course of antibiotics partway through, even if your symptoms have disappeared. Taking the full course gives you the best odds of eliminating all the infection-causing bacteria and regaining health.
  • Practice ongoing prevention. Wash your hands regularly. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. Get vaccinated. Stay home from work and school when you’re sick. Thoroughly clean food preparation surfaces, especially when cooking meat and poultry.

What happens if antibiotics don't work for a UTI?

As painful as they may be, UTIs by themselves are not life-threatening. But the increase of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is making it more difficult for doctors to effectively treat what used to be simple infections. The New York Times called UTIs "the single biggest risk to healthy people from drug-resistant germs." When bacteria develop a resistance to a drug and outlive a round of antibiotics, they can then hide out and multiply in the urinary tract, later causing “reinfections.”

Since getting one UTI makes you more susceptible to future infections, this becomes a troubling cycling for many patients. People who struggle with recurrent UTIs may require multiple rounds of antibiotics to treat one stubborn infection. Plus, leaving a UTI untreated can cause more serious issues, like kidney infections, renal damage, and, in rare cases, sepsis — a life-threatening condition in which the body’s defense mechanisms release chemicals that can cause septic shock and effect multiple organ systems.

While most healthy people will walk away from a UTI relatively unscathed, certain populations — like the elderly and immunocompromised individuals — face a much higher risk of complications. Knowing the common symptoms of septic shock can save your life or a loved one’s.

Common symptoms of septic shock:

  • Dangerously low blood pressure
  • Increase in respiratory rate
  • Altered mental state

Can you treat a UTI without antibiotics?

In short: No, not today. Hopefully, we’ll see innovations in UTI treatment in the near future, but at the moment, antibiotics are the only known effective treatment for UTIs. That said, there are more natural methods you can try to reduce your risk and prevent recurrent infections.

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