What is Antibiotic Resistance?

Last updated on March 30, 2021

If you’re reading this, odds are good that you’ve taken an antibiotic at some point in your life.

Since the discovery of penicillin in 1928, antibiotics have transformed modern medicine and are now among the most commonly prescribed drugs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They play a life-saving role in the treatment of bacterial infections, prevent the spread of disease, and help minimize serious complications from diseases.

Unfortunately, the long history of inappropriate use and over-prescription of antibiotics has created what the CDC calls “one of the most urgent threats to the public’s health”: antibiotic resistance.

What are antibiotics?

An antibiotic is a medicine used to treat a bacterial infection — emphasis on bacterial.

Many people are of the mistaken belief that antibiotics can also treat viral infections like colds, coughs, or the flu. This is incorrect. Antibiotics have no effect on viruses.

And if you use an antibiotic inappropriately, the side effects can be dangerous or even deadly.


Antibiotic resistance defined

Antibiotic resistance is when bacteria evolve to the point that antibiotics become less able — or completely unable — to fight infections. This process occurs naturally over time, but it’s been sped up dramatically by people who overuse antibiotics.

Why is it a problem?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Without urgent action [to address antibiotic resistance], we are heading for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries can once again kill.”

Some of that impact is already being felt:

  • At least 2 million people in the U.S. become infected annually with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
  • More than 35,000 deaths occur every year as a direct result of these infections.
  • At least 28% of all antibiotics prescribed in the U.S. are unnecessary.

Even barring the worst-case scenario described by the WHO above, antibiotic resistance has contributed to an increasing number of health care problems that can result in:

  • Serious illnesses and disabilities
  • Increasing fatalities from previously treatable illnesses
  • Prolonged recovery rates
  • Increased number of hospital stays
  • Longer hospital stays
  • Frequent visits to a healthcare provider
  • Less effective treatments
  • More expensive treatments

What’s being done to fight antibiotic resistance?

Because the greatest threat comes from people overusing or misusing antibiotics, awareness of the issue is key. The WHO and other groups have worked to communicate the importance of appropriate antibiotic prescription and usage with events like World Antimicrobial Awareness Week.

The CDC has outlined four key actions to slow antibiotic resistance:

  1. Encourage preventive measures like handwashing, good hygiene and vaccinations
  2. Track and monitor the spread of antibiotic-resistant illnesses
  3. Stop inappropriate and unnecessary use of antibiotics
  4. Develop new drugs and tests

What you can do to help

Use antibiotics appropriately. This is sometimes referred to as “antibiotic stewardship,” and the public has a crucial role to play.

Here are some key actions:

  • Take the appropriate antibiotic dosage prescribed by your doctor.
  • Finish your prescription on schedule as prescribed by your doctor.
  • If a dosage is missed in a prescribed course, speak to your doctor.
  • Don’t use antibiotics that are prescribed for someone else.
  • Practice good hygiene to reduce the spread of germs — wash your hands before eating, before preparing food, and after using the toilet.
  • Don’t pressure your doctor to give you an antibiotic prescription if you don’t need it. Instead, ask your doctor how to treat symptoms related to a particular illness.
  • Make sure your and your family’s vaccinations are up to date.
  • Report any known allergies to a healthcare provider or doctor, especially a penicillin allergy.

Using antibiotics appropriately can preserve their effectiveness, extend your lifespan, and protect you from antibiotic-resistant infections.

Do your part

It is important to understand the difference between viral and bacterial infections, and when antibiotics will be effective and when they will not.

Listen to your doctor when you are ill. Do not demand antibiotics if they are not needed.

Connect with a HealthTap doctor today if you have any concerns or need any medical advice.

HealthTap Editors

HealthTap Editors

HealthTap articles are reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. Visit https://www.healthtap.com/about-doctors/ to learn more and meet some of the medical editorial board members behind our blog. The information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. HealthTap is a virtual-first, affordable urgent- and primary-care clinic, providing top-quality physician care nationwide to Americans with or without insurance. Our proprietary, easy-to-use, and innovative apps and electronic medical record apply Silicon Valley standards to effectively engage consumers and doctors online to increase the equity, accessibility, and efficiency of ongoing medical care for consumers, providers, employers, and payers. In addition, with HealthTap, businesses can offer virtual primary care to employees for less than the cost of free coffee. HealthTap's US-based board-certified physicians are available throughout North America. For more information, visit www.healthtap.com.

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