The dangerous overuse of antibiotics and creation of superbugs

BlogHer Original Post

For nearly the past month, my family and I have been battling a doozy of an upper respiratory infection, also known as a cold or the flu. It started with my daughter and quickly spread to my son and husband and finally to me all within about a week's time. The coughing, the phlegm, the runny nose, the aches, the fever, the gastrointestinal issues - we shared it all. Isn't family great?!

Throughout the several weeks of what was pretty much hell for me, all I wanted was something that would make it all better - a magic pill, an elixir, anything. Yet as I had suspected, when I saw the doctor (both for myself and later for my son), she confirmed that it was a viral infection not a bacterial infection, which means antibiotics won't do a darn thing to make it better. (More about virus vs. bacteria.) With viral infections, you just need to wait out the illness (usually one to three weeks) and do whatever you can to make the symptoms more bearable - drink lots of liquids, get lots of rest, etc. I was disappointed there was no quick fix (it's seriously hard to care for your sick family when you feel like the walking dead yourself), but I accepted it and focused on doing what I could naturally to help us all feel better.

It seems not everyone is as accepting of a viral diagnosis as I was. According to the blog Antibiotic Misuse and Resistance, "Seven out of ten Americans receive antibiotics when they seek treatment for a common cold!" because the patient "pressures the doctor into prescribing an antibiotic to get a quick fix to his/her illness." The problem with this, of course, is that "antibiotics won’t cure a cold because colds are caused by viruses, not bacteria."

The overuse of antibiotics is a real problem. Jane Collingwood from Psych Central notes in The Common Cold: Facts and Myths, "antibiotics usually do not help a cold. Antibiotics work against bacteria, while most colds are viral.The overprescription of unwarranted antibiotics has caused our bodies to develop antibiotic-resistant bacteria. When you really do have a bacterial infection, antibiotics may not be able to treat it. They may actually make colds worse by killing the ‘friendly’ bacteria and creating an environment more hospitable to the virus."

If that doesn't convince you and you are still wondering why you can't take an antibiotic "just in case," here's why.

There are big problems with the cavalier use of antibiotics. When bacteria are exposed to an antibiotic, while many are killed, subsequent generations of others may develop characteristics that allow them to resist being killed. While the antibiotic kills off the weakest bacteria, antibiotic resistance allows the stronger, resistant bacteria to continue multiplying. The eventual result can be "superbugs," which are very hard to kill and may only succumb to extremely powerful antibiotics. Such antibiotics pose a greater risk of significant side effects that may require hospitalization and are much more costly. Some superbugs go on to cause devastating and even fatal infections that are incurable with current antibiotics.

Another tip to remember that's helpful in preventing superbugs is that if you are prescribed an antibiotic for a bacterial infection, be sure to take the full course of it as directed. "Don't stop the medicine just because you begin to feel better. Not taking the entire prescription may allow resistant bacteria to thrive and not be completely killed off."

Nurse Barb sums it all up nicely when she says, "the next time you go to see your health care provider and they tell you that you don't need an antibiotic, be grateful, this could ultimately save your life in years to come."

Some of the things I did for myself and my family that helped us deal with our virus were:

  • Cut out all dairy products (to reduce mucus) and greatly reduce sugar and flour consumption
  • Drink a lot of fluids, especially hot tea with honey (honey has been proven effective in treating coughs, especially in children though should never be given to children under 1 year old)
  • Use a vaporizer or humidifier at night
  • Eat a lot of homemade chicken noodle (or rice) soup
  • Rest as much as possible
  • Spend time in the steamy bathroom to help break up phlegm
  • Normally I prefer using cloth handkerchiefs (better for the environment), but I finally broke down and started using disposable tissues so we wouldn't reinfect each other with dirty hankies lying around the house
  • Use a neti pot to clean out the sinuses (BlogNosh has a humorous tutorial on how to use a neti pot)
  • Frequently wash hands with regular soap (not antibacterial) and water
  • Use herbal and homeopathic remedies

More tips can be found at the Crunchy Bunch for treating colds naturally and Kelly the Kitchen Kop has a list of Home Remedies for a Cold & Ear Ache / How to Avoid Colds, Flu, Ear Infections & Antibiotics.

Disclaimer: Please note that I am not a doctor, nor am I giving medical advice here. If you or your child is sick, I recommend visiting your doctor to get the correct diagnosis and then using your best judgment.

Contributing editor Amy Gates blogs about green living, attachment parenting, activism and photography at Crunchy Domestic Goddess.

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