DEAR DOCTOR K: I’ve been hearing a lot about “antibiotic resistance.” What does it mean?
DEAR READER: When penicillin was discovered, many people (including doctors) thought bacterial infections would become a thing of the past. Unfortunately, penicillin and other early antibiotics didn’t successfully treat all kinds of bacteria that make us sick.
Even worse, bacteria adapted to fight antibiotics. All they had to do was the thing they do best: Keep multiplying. Bacteria multiply so fast that one bacterium becomes millions in 24 hours.
When bacteria (and other cells) divide, mutations (changes in their genes) can occur. Sometimes these mutations allow the bacteria to resist antibiotics. And when they divide, they pass that antibiotic resistance on to their offspring. Now there are millions of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Antibiotic resistance is a serious problem, causing millions of illnesses and more than 20,000 deaths in the United States each year. Over time, if antibiotic use doesn’t change, antibiotics will become less able to treat common infections. We may be left with no drugs in our arsenal that can kill certain bacteria.
Overuse of antibiotics is the most common cause of drug-resistant bacteria. We can all take steps to help slow the growth of antibiotic resistance – or even turn it around:
Decrease excess use of antibiotics:
• Don’t demand antibiotics. If your doctor says you don’t need an antibiotic, ask what else you can do to decrease your symptoms.
• Don’t save antibiotics and start them again without specific instructions from your doctor.
• Don’t share antibiotics with your friends and family.
• Wash your hands regularly (with regular, not antibacterial, soap).
• Sneeze into your elbow, not your hand.
• Stay home from work or school if you are sick.
• Stay up-to-date with your vaccinations.