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Antibiotics: To Take or Not to Take?

Sneezing? Congested? Coughing? Ack! Is it a cold or the flu? Either way, you may think you need an antibiotic. That, however, may not be the case.

For the past 70 years, doctors have prescribed antibiotics to treat numerous infectious diseases. These drugs have saved millions of lives and reduced illnesses. Between 1945 and 1972, the average human life expectancy increased by eight years because antibiotics fought infections that used to killed patients. Now, antibiotics are the most commonly prescribed drugs by doctors. At least 150 million antibiotic prescriptions are written in the United States each year.

“Antibiotics are certainly a wonder of modern medicine and have saved many lives,” Randal Hundley, M.D., a medical director at Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield, said. “However, most infections are not helped by antibiotics. In fact, antibiotics can cause harm, ranging from allergy or diarrhea to infection with worse bugs or even a rupture of the Achilles tendon.”


Many infections have started to resist antibiotics, making them less effective and even deadly. Scary!

Each year in the United States, at least 2 million people become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. At least 23,000 people die yearly as a direct result of these infections. Antibiotic overuse and misuse are the main reasons behind this resistance.

For example, clostridium difficile (C. diff) often is caused by overusing antibiotics. C. diff can kill healthy bacteria in the stomach and allow harmful bacteria to grow in its place. This causes colitis, a serious inflammation of the colon. C. diff is one of the fastest-growing antibiotic-resistant “superbugs.”

Other infections like medication-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a type of staph bacteria that has become resistant to many antibiotics. Other diseases, such as tuberculosis and gonorrhea, are becoming superbugs, too.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say antibiotic resistance is one of the most urgent threats to the public’s health. Once, these superbugs showed up primarily in healthcare settings such as hospitals and nursing homes. Patients with weakened immune systems are more susceptible to infections.

It’s no longer just the sick and elderly who suffer with superbugs. Today, superbugs are appearing in communities, and healthy people could be at risk.

Adverse drug reactions

Antibiotics also can trigger adverse drug reactions. In fact, 1 in 5 emergency room visits caused by adverse drug events involves an antibiotic. In children under the age of 18, antibiotics are the most common cause of emergency room visits related to adverse drug events.

“The biggest concern, though, is that bad bugs are becoming resistant even to very strong antibiotics, which means that when a person gets an infection, we may not have any effective treatment for them,” Dr. Hundley said. “The best thing to do is to use antibiotics only when necessary.”

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