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Now We've Done It: Texas Fights The Overuse of Antibiotics

Aug 18, 2007
Most of us have done it: at some point, we caught a bad cold or flu and, feeling miserable, dragged (or, if you prefer, drug) our shaking bodies into the doctor's office to beg for a prescription, believing a few pills will somehow make it all better. "Come on, Doc," we said, "Give me something. I'm under a deadline, here. My health insurance will cover it."

Unfortunately this attitude, and many physicians' willingness to prescribe antibiotics when they are unnecessary -- at times even when they have absolutely no effect on the illness creating the problem -- has lead to a serious problem in creating drug-resistant bacterial strains in Texas and the rest of the United States. Knowing most health insurance policies with prescription coverage will pay for a simple antibiotic makes the temptation all that much harder to resist. Dr, Richard Besser, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, describes it as "the whole culture of overprescribing."

Approximately 150 million unnecessary prescriptions are written every year -- 50 million of which are for viral infections, diseases completely unaffected by antibiotic medication. That means residents of Dallas, Houston, and Austin are just as guilty as the rest. Simply having an infection doesn't warrant antibiotics; it's the kind of infection that determines whether such treatment is necessary and useful. Antibiotics are, indeed, a miracle drug, first created in the 1940s with the advent of penicillin, and absolutely life-saving for certain conditions. The key is understanding when antibiotics are appropriate, and when they are not.

Antibiotics fight bacteria, not viruses. Viruses and bacteria are two completely different kinds of organisms, and require different elements to survive, and therefore different methods for combating them. Bacteria are much simpler, and actually much easier to fight -- as long as they are not drug resistant. Strep throat, urinary tract infections, wound and skin infections, most ear infections, and some sinus infections are caused by bacteria. The common cold, the common flu, most sore throats, and most coughs, however, are not. They are viral, and Western medicine does not currently have a medication that effectively fights common viruses.

The problem comes after six decades of antibiotic use and overuse. Bacteria multiply in the millions, and, like any organism, learn to adapt to what seeks to harm them. Because their individual life cycles are relatively short, and because of this rate of reproduction, their ability to adapt is much faster than our own.

When an antibiotic is taken as prescribed and fails to kill all bacteria in an infection, it usually means those survivors have learned to resist that drug. They can then pass on that information to other bacteria in the body, making them resistant as well. When, consequently, a stronger drug is tried to fight the same infection and, it too, proves ineffective, the creation of a "superbug" begins -- a dangerous strain resistant to most, or all known, medications. The longer it takes to kill the infection, the longer such a superbug can be transmitted to others Just think of the consequences of the rapid transmission of a superbug in cities like Dallas, Houston, or Austin.
One of the best, and most disturbing examples of this phenomenon is pneumococcus, which is a bacterial strain that causes pneumonia, ear infections, and sinusitis. Its resistance has been increasing in recent years, and, because it causes infections that are so common, a pneumococcus strain completely resistant to all known drugs would prove absolutely pandemic.

Even vancomycin (Vancocin), an extremely potent antibiotic pulled out only when all other medications have proven ineffective, has met its bacterial match. The use of antibiotics previously prescribed only for high-risk situations, such as with cancer or organ transplant patients, is also on the rise due to the necessity of replacing older, weaker drugs with stronger ones. Soon, even vancomycin will fall down in the hierarchy of drugs to try when nothing else works.

Unnecessary antibiotic use may do more immediate harm than good, as well. Certain bacteria are good for you, believe it or not, and are necessary for various normal body functions. The digestive system, for instance, depends upon a healthy count of beneficial bacteria to do its job. Acidophilus and other probiotics keep the digestive system on track, but antibiotics are indiscriminate and will attempt to kill all bacteria in the body -- good or bad. These beneficial strains, then, need to be replenished -- either by the body or through supplements -- after a course of antibiotics, as an insufficient number may lead to irregularities and other types of infections, such as yeast.

But there is hope. The primary reason resistant strains have been created in Texas and across the United States is the overuse, and misuse of antibiotics. If we, as a public, can slow our usage of them, and use medications only when absolutely necessary, this problem can be considerably slowed. Our conscious efforts, in fact, may prevent future antibiotic-resistant pandemics.

What You Can Do:

It can't be said enough: Use all medications, particularly antibiotics, only when absolutely necessary. If you feel ill, of course, seek the advice of a medical practitioner, and find out for sure with what you are dealing. Don't beg for an antibiotic, however, when it's not necessary. Viruses are not affected by bacteria, so find alternatives to deal with that cold or flu! Zinc, for instance, has proven to reduce the duration of the common cold and flu by up to four days. Other natural methods are also extremely helpful in shortening the duration of illnesses and combating their symptoms.

Always take the full course of antibiotics prescribed, even if you start feeling better. You can start feeling much better well before all the dangerous bacteria in your system have been killed. Stopping a course of antibiotic treatment before it's been completed only creates prime opportunities for the infectious bacteria left to become resistant.

Never take antibiotics without a prescription. There are many types of antibiotics used to fight many strains of bacteria, all of which work in a slightly different way. You need to make sure you are getting the right prescription, taking the correct dose, and taking it as long, but not longer, than you should.

Keep healthy! By revving up your immune system to its maximum capabilities, you'll need antibiotics less. Wash your hands, exercise, eat right, and take vitamins if you feel them beneficial. After all, who wants to be sick?

The tendency for most Americans to search for that "magic bullet" is, perhaps, a natural one. After all, so many resources are so readily available to most of us in this country -- why shouldn't one for getting over the cold or flu be, too? But, unfortunately, some things just don't come that easily, and the overuse, and misuse, of antibiotics has created a major problem. Superbugs are very real, and if we don't all do our part in controlling them, there soon could be even bigger problems. So stay healthy, take care of yourself, and for your own sake, do what you're told -- at least this time.
About the Author
Pat Carpenter writes for Precedent Insurance Company. Precedent puts a new spin on health insurance. Learn more at Precedent.com
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