The drugs we have relied on for 70 years to fight bacterial infections – everything from infected cuts to potentially deadly pneumonia – are becoming powerless, according to Consumer Reports.
Why? Because antibiotics are often misused by doctors, patients and even people raising animals for meat. And that misuse, which includes prescribing or using those drugs incorrectly, breeds “superbugs” – dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can’t be controlled easily.
Often, when we’re sick, we ask our doctors for antibiotics to treat problems that the drugs simply don’t work against, such as colds or the flu. Those illnesses are usually caused by viruses, not bacteria – and antibiotics don’t work against viruses.
Doctors, of course, know that the drugs don’t work for viral infections. But they’re often all too willing to comply. That’s partly because they want to make their patients happy, and partly because doing so is faster than ordering tests to confirm the cause.
In addition, many of us now use antibacterial cleaning products in our homes. “They contain triclosan or other antibiotics,” says Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., director of the Consumer Reports Center for Safety and Sustainability. “These products may promote resistance, and plain soap and water is enough to get most cleaning jobs done.”
Every time you use an antibiotic it kills some – but not all – of the bacteria in your body. The survivors might mutate, modifying their genetic material so that they are no longer vulnerable to the drugs. Antibiotics also kill off some of the “good” bacteria that normally live in your intestines, which may allow resistant bacteria to fill the void.
Consumer Reports recommends the following:
• Keep hands clean. Washing up with soap and water for at least 20 seconds helps you avoid getting and spreading infections. Avoid antibacterial hand soaps.
• Use antibiotic creams sparingly. Use over-the-counter antibiotic ointments containing bacitracin and neomycin only for cuts and scrapes that leave visible dirt behind. Wash all superficial wounds with soap and water.
• Consider purchasing meat labeled “no antibiotics” or “USDA organic.” Rangan says, “buying meat raised without antibiotics supports farmers who keep animals off unnecessary drugs and helps preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics.”
• Get vaccinated. Some shots prevent bacterial infections, such as diphtheria and whooping cough. Pneumonia can be viral or bacterial, and there are vaccines to prevent both. And while the flu is always viral, getting vaccinated makes it less likely that you’ll get sick from it and ask your doctor for antibiotics unnecessarily.
• Don’t push for antibiotics. If your doctor says you don’t have a bacterial infection, don’t insist. Instead, ask about other ways to get relief.
• Fight it off. If bacteria are the cause, ask if you might be able to beat the infection on your own.
• Follow directions. Take the full course of your prescription, even if you feel better after a day or two. If treatment stops too soon, the antibiotic might not kill all the bacteria, some of which might reinfect you and become resistant to the drug.
• Don’t use leftovers. Taking medications left over from a previous illness is a bad idea, because your current problem might not stem from a bacterial infection or the antibiotic might not be the right one for it.
• Get screened for MRSA before surgery. A simple nasal swab can tell whether you carry low levels of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and allow the hospital staff to take precautions, such as prescribing antibiotic nasal ointments and having you use special soap before your procedure.
• Insist on clean hands when in the hospital or at your doctor’s office. If you don’t see health care providers or visitors wash their hands, ask them to. Bring bleach wipes to use on bed rails, doorknobs and the TV remote.