This is a post prepared under a contract funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and written on behalf of the Mom It Forward Influencer Network for use in CDC’s Be Antibiotics Aware educational effort. Opinions on this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of CDC.
A couple of years ago, I got a hangnail while traveling in Nashville, Tennessee. I can't leave things alone, so I pulled it, and it bled a little. And then I forgot about it.
A week later, that little hangnail had turned all red. It was hot to the touch, and my finger was swollen and very painful.
I went to the doctor, and he said I had a minor infection (it didn't feel very minor!) and prescribed an antibiotic.
The infection didn't clear up. In fact, the swelling and pain just increased.
I hate going to the doctor, so I gave it a few more days, during which time the swelling and pain continued to increase.
Eventually, I went back to the doctor, and he lanced the wound again (ouch!), drained all the green grossness inside, and sent the goo out for a culture. The culture determined my infection was due to MRSA.
I was extremely fortunate in that my MRSA infection was caught quickly, and it responded to the second round of antibiotics that I was prescribed. Many people aren't so lucky and end up with widespread MRSA infections.
Understanding antibiotic use and antibiotic resistance
Inappropriate antibiotic use happens when a person is prescribed antibiotics when they’re not needed or when a person is prescribed the wrong antibiotic, at the wrong dose, for the wrong length of time, or at the wrong time. Any time antibiotics are used, they can cause side effects and lead to antibiotic resistance. Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria develop the ability to defeat the drugs designed to kill them. That’s why my first antibiotic treatment did not cure me.
In fact, antibiotic resistance is one of the most urgent threats to our public health. Each year in the United States, at least 2 million people get infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and at least 23,000 people die as a result.
Antibiotic resistance does not mean your body is becoming resistant to antibiotics; it is the bacteria that develop the ability to defeat the antibiotics designed to kill them. When bacteria become resistant, antibiotics cannot fight them, and the bacteria multiply. Some resistant bacteria, like MRSA, can be harder to treat and can be spread to other people even while you’re taking antibiotics.
Antibiotic use is getting a lot of press these days because we, the public, need to be educated on proper antibiotic use.
When antibiotics will work and when they won’t
As I said in my sepsis post a few weeks ago, antibiotics save lives. They’re critical for treating people with serious infections, such as pneumonia or sepsis, the body’s extreme response to an infection.
When a patient needs antibiotics, the benefits usually outweigh the risks of side effects or antibiotic resistance.
Antibiotics aren't always the answer. Antibiotics do not work on viruses that cause colds and flu, bronchitis, or runny noses, even if the mucus is thick, yellow, or green. Antibiotics are only needed for treating certain infections caused by bacteria, but even some bacterial infections get better without antibiotics, including many sinus infections and some ear infections. In many of these cases, the illnesses are viral and will clear up on their own.
Respiratory viruses usually go away in a week or two without treatment. Ask your healthcare professional about the best way to feel better while your body fights off the virus.
When antibiotics aren’t needed, they won’t help you, and the side effects could still hurt you. Side effects range from minor to very severe health problems, such as rash or C. difficile (C. diff). When you need antibiotics for an infection, the benefits of the drug usually outweigh the risk of side effects.
It may be impossible for us as laypeople to know whether our illness is caused by a virus or bacteria, so a trip to the doctor is often necessary. If he or she does prescribe an antibiotic, it is critical that you take it exactly as prescribed.
Improving the way we take antibiotics helps keep us healthy now, helps fight antibiotic resistance, and ensures that life-saving antibiotics will be available for future generations.
To learn more about antibiotic prescribing and use, visit www.cdc.gov/antibiotic-use.
To learn more about sepsis, a life-threatening condition that is treated with antibiotics, visit www.cdc.gov/sepsis.