When penicillin was first discovered in 1928 it was a godsend for patients and physicians. Thousands of lives were saved by successful treatment of serious bacterial infections. Now we have hundreds of potent antibiotics to use. The purpose of this article is to give readers some pause as to the overzealous use of antibiotics.
I have overheard people on more than a few occasions say that they went to their doctor with the flu and thankfully got a shot of antibiotics; or that they were getting a cold and planned to get into their doctor right away to get an antibiotic before they got worse.
Influenza and the common cold are caused by viruses, and treating them with antibiotics does nothing to shorten the illness. Antibiotics should be prescribed for bacterial infections only. They do absolutely nothing for a viral illness. Some doctors actually prescribe antibiotics because they feel pressure from the patient or are worried their patient will just go to another provider if they don’t satisfy their consumer’s demands. On other occasions, it’s the parents of ill children who insist on an antibiotic prescription that may not be indicated.
A common example is seeing your doctor for a sore throat. About 80 percent of sore throats in children are caused by viruses. In adults that number is closer to 90 percent. Strep throat only accounts for about 20 percent of sore throats in children and 10 percent in adults. Yet, in one study, 70 percent of people presenting to doctors in this country for a sore throat received antibiotic treatment. That number should be 10-20 percent. If you have a sore throat accompanied by a significant fever, then having your doctor do a swab for strep is certainly worthwhile. If the test comes back positive, treatment with an antibiotic would then be indicated.
Antibiotics can have serious side effects in some people, and even life-threatening reactions do occur. A common side effect is diarrhea. Sometimes this is fairly benign and more of a nuisance than anything. But there is a very serious type of diarrhea that is directly related to antibiotic use. It is called “C-diff,” for “clostridium difficile.” I almost lost a daughter to this years ago, and to this day she has to be extra careful to avoid antibiotics unless absolutely necessary because she is at high risk for recurrence. Antibiotics suppress the normal bacterial flora in the intestines, and pathologic bacteria like C-diff can take over. The Mayo Clinic estimates that 500,000 people suffer with this yearly, with a significant mortality rate. In the worst cases, one can develop what is called “pseudomembranous colitis.” The colon becomes so inflamed that serious bleeding can occur, or there can be the onset of what is called megacolon. This is when the colon becomes massively dilated and there is actually risk for rupture. Emergency surgery is sometimes needed to prevent this life-threatening complication.
Overuse of antibiotics can also help promote drug-resistant bacteria. This is becoming a very serious problem throughout the world. When I was a resident in training in the late 1970s, amoxicillin killed just about every E. coli infection we ran across. Now there are many E. coli infections that are difficult to treat. Recently an E. coli superbug has been discovered that is resistant to nearly all antibiotics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta have been warning doctors and hospitals that a life-threatening epidemic could be on the horizon from these superbugs.
The bottom line is this: Only take antibiotics if you have a serious bacterial infection that needs treatment. Like all of God’s gifts, antibiotics have a specific purpose that serves the well-being of the human family when used properly. If we fail to use antibiotics properly, however, rather than restoring health, we risk causing great harm to ourselves and others. As St. Paul reminded the Christian community in Corinth many centuries ago, when speaking about coordinating God’s gifts, “Everything must be done properly and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40).
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