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Antibiotic Resistance: Causes and Prevention, with Videos

Updated on September 18, 2011

antibiotic resistance

Antibiotics are among the most prescribed drugs in the world. Unfortunately, this has led to antibiotic resistance. Although antibiotics have been used safely and effectively for centuries and have saved many, many lives over the years, they’re becoming less effective, overall. Much of this is due to over-prescribing on the part of doctors and incorrectly taking the prescriptions by patients, along with the bacteria’s evolving and mutating. By understanding more about antibiotics, you might be able to decrease your chances of experiencing antibiotic resistance.

Overuse of antibiotics can cause antibiotic resistance.
Overuse of antibiotics can cause antibiotic resistance.

What are antibiotics?

Antibiotics are compounds that fight bacterial infections. Humans have been using some form of antibiotics for hundreds of years. In fact, the ancient Greeks used molds, natural antibiotics, to treat bacterial infections some 2,000 years ago. Antibiotics may be natural antibiotics, synthetic, or semisynthetic.

Antibiotics can be pretty choosy about which bacteria they target. For example, antibiotics that work well with an ear infection might not work as well in treating bronchitis. Sometimes your physician will take a culture so that the specific bacterium can grow in the lab and be studied under a microscope. Once the bacterium is identified, the most effective antibiotics will be prescribed.

Some natural antibiotics are made from mold.
Some natural antibiotics are made from mold.

How do antibiotics work?

Antibiotics can work in two ways. Some antibiotics kill bacteria, while others interfere with the bacteria’s ability to replicate and grow. Antibiotics that kill bacteria are called bactericides, and antibiotics that effectively slow the growth of bacteria are called bacteriostatics.

I’ll provide you with a simplified explanation of how a very common bactericide, penicillin, works: You probably remember what a cell wall is from biology class, right? Penicillin attacks the cell walls of bacteria. More specifically, penicillin attaches to an enzyme produced by the bacteria, causing pressure in the cells to increase. Ultimately, the cell walls weaken and break down, causing the bacteria to die.

Bacteriostatic antibiotics affect the bacteria cells’ metabolisms, inhibiting their ability to divide and multiply. For example, some bacteriostatic antibiotics interfere with the bacteria’s DNA. This type of antibiotics works with your immune system to fight bacterial infections. Some common bacteriostatic antibiotics include the sulfonamides and the tetracyclines.

To confuse matters even more, there is some overlap between bactericides and bacteriostatics. Some antibiotics function as both.

Talk to your pharmacist about taking prescribed antibiotics correctly. Doing so could help prevent antibiotic resistance.
Talk to your pharmacist about taking prescribed antibiotics correctly. Doing so could help prevent antibiotic resistance.

What causes antibiotic resistance?

Over the years, antibiotics have become less effective, due to antibiotic resistance. Antibiotic resistance is actually an example of evolution. Think back to biology class again. Remember how species adapt to survive in their environments? That’s what happens with antibiotic resistance. It’s the bacteria’s version of “survival of the fittest.” Only the most bacteria-resistant cells survive and reproduce. Theoretically, these mutated cells gain even more antibiotic resistance the longer they’re exposed to antibiotics.

Antibiotic resistance can be a big problem when you don’t take the complete round of antibiotics prescribed by your healthcare professional. Some people tend to discontinue the use of their prescribed antibiotics when they begin to feel better. In this case, the bacteria cells that were least resistant to the antibiotic have died off, leaving only the most antibiotic-resistant cells to grow and spread. These new bacteria will have antibiotic resistance, so you’ll likely become ill again, and the infection will be more difficult to treat.

Allergic reactions to antibiotics can include skin rashes and hives, along with swelling and difficulty breathing.
Allergic reactions to antibiotics can include skin rashes and hives, along with swelling and difficulty breathing.

How to take antibiotics correctly

There are more than one hundred commonly prescribed antibiotics, and each has its own guidelines for administration. If you’ve been prescribed oral antibiotics, talk to your pharmacist about the best way to take them. I’ve found that my druggist is more forthcoming with this kind of information than my doctors are.

Some antibiotics need to be taken with food, while others work better on an empty stomach. Also, some antibiotics shouldn’t be taken with other medications, so be sure to ask about this. Some antibiotics can also cause sensitivity to sunlight, so if you’re taking one of these drugs, you’ll need to avoid UV light for a while.

If you’re a drinker of alcohol and have been prescribed antibiotics, you’ll definitely want to find out about your antibiotics and alcohol. Some can cause terrible side effects when taken with alcoholic beverages, including extreme nausea and vomiting.

When you’re taking antibiotics, pay attention to possible allergic reactions. Severe allergic reactions can be more life-threatening than the infection you’re treating. When I was a child, I was prescribed penicillin, and I found out the hard way that I was allergic to the drug. My mouth broke out in ulcers, and my tongue swelled. It was almost impossible for me to eat or drink, and as a result, I lost over ten pounds in a little over a week. That’s a lot for an eight-year-old child! Other signs of allergy include white patches on the tongue, a rash, hives, breathing difficulties, and swelling of the face and lips. In rare cases, antibiotics can cause anaphylactic shock, which can be deadly. Call or see your doctor immediately if you think you’re having an allergic reaction to your antibiotics.

One of the most important aspects in taking prescribed antibiotics is to take them on time and to finish the entire prescription. Even if the drug is causing some unpleasant side effects like diarrhea or stomach upset, it’s important to finish all your pills or liquid, as prescribed. If you don’t, you could very easily end up with a bacterial infection with antibiotic resistance.

Some antibiotics can cause hypersensitivity to UV rays.
Some antibiotics can cause hypersensitivity to UV rays.

More about antibiotic resistance:

Multiple antibiotic resistance:

Antibiotic resistance and bacteria evolution:


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