4 Things You Need To Know About Antibiotic Resistance

This could save your life.

Since Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin in 1928, deaths from infectious diseases have plummeted. Antibiotics have allowed humans to combat the bacterial infections that claimed so many lives before. Unfortunately, we could be at risk of losing this incredible resource due to antibiotic resistance. Bacteria evolve and become better adapted at surviving these drugs on which we have relied for so long.

These drug-resistant bacteria are known as "superbugs," the most well-known of which is methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). About 15 percent of patients who contract MRSA will end up dying from the infection. As quickly as antibiotics are developed, bacteria begin to find a way to reduce their effectiveness. As more and more bacterial species become resistant to treatment, humanity could soon be entering a post-antibiotic era, putting us back in a time before Fleming's history-changing discovery.

As Ed Yong deftly details in The Atlantic, much of the problem with antibiotics is that the average person doesn't know much about them, but could be contributing greatly to the problem. 

In honor of World Antibiotic Awareness Week, here are four concepts everyone should know about antibiotics and how to use them responsibly:

1. Antibiotics only work to fight bacteria, not viruses or fungi.

As the name indicates, antibiotics are compounds that fight bacterial infections. This means that they don't work on illnesses caused by viruses, such as the cold or flu. While some people may request these drugs when they're sick, any good doctor will refuse and prescribe an appropriate medication, but it's better to not even ask in the first place.

2. Antibacterial products pose a large risk to the environment.

Antibacterial hand soaps don't really provide any tangible benefits to making hands cleaner, but they do pose an environmental hazard. These compounds aren't removed from the water in wastewater treatment facilities, meaning they get released back into the environment and become part of the water cycle. This has terrible implications for the marine life living near these areas, as they are subjected to these superbugs.

3. The largest consumers of antibiotics are livestock.

A staggering 80 percent of all antibiotics administered are given to factory-farmed animals. The cramped living conditions are stressful to the animals, putting them at increased risk of getting sick. However, much of the medicine is given to animals that aren't even sick yet. This unnecessary practice does nothing but increase resistance to medication.

4. Antibiotic resistance refers to the bacteria becoming resistant to the medicine, not the person.

A recent poll found that many Americans believe that antibiotic resistance occurs when the person taking the medicine becomes resistant to its effects and will not take a full course of medication to limit their exposure. This is absolutely incorrect. Not taking the full course of antibiotics doesn't benefit the user at all, it just leaves behind bacteria that are better adapted at evading the effects of the drug, leading to a more resistant strain. It is critically important to finish all medication as directed by a physician.

Want to learn more about bacteria, how antibiotic resistance occurs, and how scientists are working to fight it? Check out this great video from Joe Hanson of It's It's Okay To Be Smart:

Want to learn more about this incredibly important topic? Use The Atlantic)

Cover image: iStockphoto