How Antibiotics Can Help. And Harm.

Your child’s ears are throbbing. You take her to the pediatrician where she is examined, diagnosed with an ear infection, and prescribed an antibiotic. The next day, your daughter feels good as new, and you thank your lucky stars for these “miracle drugs.”

Antibiotics work by destroying or slowing down the growth of bacteria, and are critically important to fighting bacterial infections. They can also save lives when used properly. But there is a downside to these medications: antibiotic resistance. Resistance is the result of antibiotic-misuse and leads to new strains of bacteria that are no longer susceptible to medication.

“I see antibiotic resistance every day in my practice,” said Sujit Suchindran, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center. In fact, the World Health Organization has declared antibiotic resistance “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today.”

So what is antibiotic misuse? It can take different forms, explains Suchindran.

Antibiotic misuse can involve a clinician prescribing an antibiotic for a viral infection — like a cold or the flu — or writing a prescription for the wrong antibiotic. Patients may misuse antibiotics by not taking them for the prescribed amount of time or by using a leftover prescription from a previous illness. Misusing antibiotics can lead to antibiotic resistance since the bacteria that survive are immune to the antibiotic used. Misuse can also lead to other consequences like C. difficile, a serious diarrheal infection.

“It’s estimated that between 30 and 40 percent of antibiotic prescriptions in both inpatient and outpatient settings qualify as inappropriate,” said Suchindran, who is also the medical director of Lahey’s Antibiotics Stewardship Program promoting the proper use of these medications.

Suchindran advises patients to take a more active role in ensuring proper antibiotic use by advocating for themselves.

“We should be empowering people to question their providers more,” said Suchindran. “In an outpatient setting, patients should feel comfortable asking their provider whether an antibiotic is needed or if there are other ways to treat their illness.” For ailments like upper respiratory infections, a common target of antibiotic misuse, Suchindran suggests adhering to the advice your mother probably gave you: drink plenty of fluids, use a humidifier to keep the air moist, and treat your symptoms with over-the-counter medications.

Another way to reduce the misuse of antibiotics is by preventing infections to begin with. Wash your hands regularly, prepare food in a hygienic way, and keep up-to-date with your vaccinations.

If you have any questions about antibiotics use, talk to your Lahey physician.

*The content on this website is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Please consult a physician regarding your specific medical condition, diagnosis and/or treatment.

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