Antibiotics - Good or Bad?
What Are Antibiotics?
We've all taken antibiotics for one illness or another, but exactly what are we taking? What are antibiotics? Essentially antibiotics are medications used to fight bacterial infections. Antibiotics are not effective against viral infections. Viral infections are caused by viruses and therefore antibiotics can't do anything against them. Antibiotics only fight bacteria. Of course, getting back to antibiotics, it's good to know there are good bacteria and bad bacteria in our bodies. It is easy to surmise bacterial infections are caused by bad bacteria and these are the ones we want to get rid of. Some we are most familiar with are the bacteria that cause strep throat or e.coli.
A good definition of antibiotics is, "Antibiotics can be loosely defined as the variety of substances derived from bacterial sources (microorganisms) that control the growth of or kill other bacteria."
The body cannot fight bad bacteria by itself. Therefore, antibiotics are needed to fight bad bacteria. Just as there are many types of bacteria, there are many types of antibiotics. There are antibacterials, antivirals, antifungals, and antiparasitics. Remember, antibiotics may kill the good bacteria as well as the bad, they can't tell the difference.
"One sometimes finds what one is not looking for"— Sir Alexander Fleming
History of Antibiotics
We're all familiar with the story of the discovery of Penicillin. A good doctor, Dr. Fleming, found mold growing in his petri dish (though everyone thinks it was on bread), and found this mold could dissolve bacteria. Further research and a series of experiments led to the development of Penicillin. After much further research, decades actually, drug companies became interested and this "antibiotic" was used on soldiers in WWII.
But, that was not the true beginning of antibiotic use. What about the plants and molds used by Ancient Greeks and American Indians? Mold was used on infections in Ancient Serbia, China and Greece. American Indians used all manner of plants and actually used mold to fight infection by applying it to infected wounds. In 1640 one John Parkington recommended using mold in a book he wrote on pharmacology. All of these uses of mold were long before Dr. Fleming made his famous discovery.
This is obviously not a comprehensive list of those valiant men who worked on discovering Penicillin and their contributions, but a mere snapshot of how Penicillin became the savior drug we have today.
Too Many Antibiotics
How Do Antibiotics Work?
Antibiotics either kill the bacteria or interfere with there reproduction. Of course this is the simplified explanation without the descriptions of DNA gyrase, or inhibit protein synthesis, or other more complicated terminology.
There are two classifications of bacteria, gram positive and gram negative. Gram positive is bacteria that have thin cell walls while gram negative have thicker, harder to penetrate cell walls. Antibiotics need to penetrate those walls! Since it may be difficult to tell which type of bacteria you are dealing with a "broad spectrum" antibiotic may be used. This type of antibiotic is known to deal with both gram positive and gram negative - the thick and thin of bad bacteria. A "narrow spectrum" antibiotic targets a few specific bacteria. Either way, the goal is to destroy the bacteria. The amazing thing is antibiotics do not attack human cells.
The antibiotics that kill bacteria go right to work and destroy the bacteria by attacking it from the outside, others impair the bacteria's ability to reproduce by going inside and destroying the cell's DNA or destroying the protein it needs to grow. Kind of like a football team, reach the goal and knock down any players in your way.
When to Take Antibiotics
Antibiotics are not all bad. They help to combat bacterial infections our bodies may not be able to get rid of on their own. Sometimes being ill with a virus or flu lowers your body's resistance and other, bacterial infections are able to take over. When should you take antibiotics? Some of the main illnesses that need antibiotics include:
- sinusitis - after a week or more
- ear infections
- strep throat
- pink eye
- urinary tract infections
Steps You Can Take To Avoid Antibiotic Resistance
- Wash your hands frequently. Won't prevent resistance but may keep you from needing antibiotics in the first place.
- Always finish any course of antibiotics your doctor gives you. Not taking the full prescription helps bacteria's resistance grow.
- If you have any antibiotic left from your prescription, throw it away!
- Never take an antibiotic for the cold or flu.
- Never take anyone else's prescription antibiotic.
The Problem With Antibiotics
As we've seen, antibiotics have been around quite awhile. As with all good things, sometimes bad things happen. The bad things that has happened with antibiotics can be various side effects, some bad enough to cancel out taking the antibiotic. Just like all the drug commercials you see on TV there is a list of possible side effects from taking antibiotics. Some possible side effects include nausea, diarrhea, sensitivity to sunlight, yeast infections, and allergic reactions. Antibiotics may also have adverse interactions with other drugs so it is always important to tell your doctor what prescription medications you are taking before even thinking about antibiotics.
Another side effect, the danger of C.diff. Technical name, Clostridium difficile. C.diff is an infection that occurs when something upsets the balance of flora and fauna in your gut. In the elderly, very young, or sick, it can be fatal. I am all too familiar with C.diff. My sister-in-law died from it and I contracted it when I was in the hospital for diverticulitis. Evidently the antibiotics I was given for the diverticulitis killed off enough of the good bacteria along with the bad, and C.diff began. The irony is, an antibiotic called Flagyl treats C.diff. As a result of my introduction to C.diff I had to return to the doctor's office for seven days to have intravenous administration of Flagyl. Fortunately it worked. Just a reminder yet again, don't use antibiotics unless they are absolutely necessary!
One of the biggest problems is antibiotic resistance. Perhaps you've heard of it. There are several reasons for antibiotic resistance but first let's be sure you know what we mean by antibiotic resistance.
Over time the body, and the cells and bacteria inside, begin to form a resistance to antibiotics that have been ingested over and over. Doctors were prescribing antibiotics for many illnesses, including viruses, that are not affected by antibiotics. So, the happy little cells and bacteria got a dose of antibiotic even when they didn't need it. Time and time again the antibiotic came to visit and the bacteria got stronger and was able to ignore the antibiotic. Some cells even changed their structure to beat antibiotics. Now you have antibiotic resistance!
What happens is bacteria just ignore the antibiotic, some are able to pump it out or get it out of their way and some just become so strong from the use of bacteria over time that they just resist it and ignore it. That's where the problem starts. Stronger and stronger antibiotics become necessary to fight bacterial infections and the circle continues. Stronger antibiotics, more resistance.
The best and safest solution is only take antibiotics when it is absolutely necessary!
Copyright Tillsontitan - All Rights Reserved
Consumer Reports has a poster from their Choosing Wisely Campaign. It reads as follows:
FIVE QUESTIONS TO ASK YOUR DOCTOR BEFORE YOU TAKE ANTIBIOTICS
- Do I really need antibiotics?
- What are the risks?
- Are there safer simpler options?
- How much do they cost?
- How do I safely take antibiotics?