Antibiotics are among the most widely prescribed medications. In 2011, about 269 million prescriptions of oral antibiotics were issued in the United States. We are all aware of the potentially life-saving properties of antibiotics, when given appropriately to cure bacterial infections. However, antibiotics are not helpful if given to people with viral infections and can cause more harm than good in this setting.
To many of us, it may seem that antibiotics have been around “forever.” Strictly speaking, this is true, because they are found widely in nature as chemical substances produced by small organisms such as bacteria and fungi.
These substances can destroy other bacteria. This was recognized more than 2,500 years ago in China, where moldy soybeans were used to treat skin infections.
In more recent history, in 1877 Louis Pasteur noted bacteria can destroy other bacteria, as a result of experiments he performed. The modern era of antibiotic usage began in the 20th century. Penicillin was discovered in 1929 by Alexander Fleming and it was available for mass production in 1941. In March 1942, the first patient was successfully treated with penicillin for a bloodstream infection. American scientists produced 2.3 million doses of penicillin during World War II, in anticipation of the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944. Penicillin quickly became known as the war’s miracle drug, reportedly saving countless soldier’s lives.
In 1945, Alexander Fleming was awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery of penicillin. Interestingly, in his Nobel acceptance speech, he predicted that penicillin could lose its effectiveness in killing bacteria in the future. This statement was prophetic as antibiotic resistance has increasingly become a major health concern. Penicillin is not nearly as effective today as an antibiotic as it was decades ago. Fortunately many other antibiotics have been developed over the past 50-plus years. Nonetheless, many of the newly developed antibiotics have also been beset by resistance problems within a few years of their usage.
Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria adapt to the effects of antibiotics, so the antibiotic is no longer effective.
As individuals there are steps we can take to combat antibiotic resistance:
• Do not take or pressure your health care provider to prescribe antibiotics for colds or other viral infections.
• Do not save some of your antibiotic prescription in your medicine cabinet for the next time you get sick.
• Take a prescribed antibiotic according to the directions of your health care provider. Do not skip doses.
• Do not take antibiotics that were prescribed for someone else.
If we follow these simple rules, then we can do our small part in preventing antibiotic resistance and we will be good stewards of antibiotic use.