Antibiotics treat bacterial infections, not viral ones. And yet, they are overly prescribed and thought of as a cure-all. Here are the facts.
The first antibiotic was discovered in 1928 by Sir Alexander Fleming, a Scottish biologist, who found that bacteria left in a petri dish was killed by a naturally occurring mould called penicillium. This was the most prolific finding in modern medicine, and since then there have been over 100 types of antibiotics created to treat bacterial infections.
Antibiotics work by:
- Killing bacteria by interfering with the formation of the bacterium’s cell wall or its contents
- Stopping bacteria from multiplying
When a bacterial infection occurs, the body’s immune system is normally able to cope with it. White blood cells attack harmful bacteria and if our immune system is strong enough, the infection can be held off. When the bacteria multiply too rapidly, antibiotics can and should be used.
When antibiotics should be used
The common misconception is that antibiotics are a cure-all. The fact is that they can only be used for infections caused by bacteria, and are therefore, ineffective against viruses. Serious infections like strep throat, pneumonia, UTI (urinary tract infection), tuberculosis, whooping cough and sepsis (the body’s overwhelming response to an infection) are illnesses that can be cured with antibiotics.
Antibiotics are also needed by people who are at a high risk of developing infections, e.g. those who have undergone surgery, receiving chemotherapy or at the end-stage of a chronic sickness.
Source: US Centres of Disease Control and Prevention
Which common ailments are commonly treated with antibiotics even though they have no effect at all?
Antibiotics are necessary and do save lives. But, there is a common misconception that they can treat any infection. We go to the doctor with the common cold and flu with symptoms like a sore throat, fever, headache, fatigue, upper respiratory tract infection and a runny nose; and want antibiotics. The truth is that in 85-90% of these cases the infection is caused by a virus, which cannot be treated with antibiotics.
Are antibiotics being overprescribed?
According to Professor Mohamed Azmi Ahmad Hassali from the School of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Universiti Sains Malaysia, Malaysians rank among the highest antibiotic users globally. One of the reasons for this is that we tend to ask our GPs to prescribe them as we are under the impression that they will cure everything.
A study shows that 90% of Malaysians expect their GPs to prescribe antibiotics with 21.6% of doctors actually doing so even if they know it’s unnecessary. To make the situation more dire, pharmacies sell them over the counter without any prescription.
Some doctors don’t use antibiotics responsibly and according to the Universiti Malaya Medical Centre (UMMC), 30-50% of antibiotics are needlessly prescribed for the common cold, cough, sore throat and gastroenteritis. Another alarming fact was that antibiotics were most commonly prescribed for acute respiratory conditions and to children aged two and below. Medical practitioners and patients need to be educated and antibiotic prescriptions must be strictly regulated to prevent serious consequences to public health.
Is it true that due to the excessive use of antibiotics over the years, certain bacteria have actually become resistant?
The overuse of antibiotics has led to ‘superbugs’ and bacterial resistance is on the rise. Antibiotic resistance occurs when the medication loses its ability to effectively control or kill bacteria, i.e. bacteria continue to multiply even in the presence of therapeutic levels of antibiotics.
According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), antibiotic resistance is one of the most urgent threats to public health. In the United States, at least two million people are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria with as many as 23,000 people dying as a result of this. This resistance affects everyone regardless of where we live. Unfortunately the consequences are real and grave – infections become harder to treat resulting in longer medical treatment, higher costs and increased mortality.
How complementary medicine and natural remedies be helpful?
Antibiotics save lives and its benefits outweigh the risk of side effects. The problem arises when you suffer the side effects (nausea, rashes, dizziness, yeast infections, good bacteria destroyed unbalancing gut flora) from taking them when your illness isn’t bacteria-based.
Here are some simple tips to maintain good health, a strong immune system and prevent illness:
- Always wash your hands to prevent the spread of illnesses
- Ensure you follow a healthy diet and try and incorporate as much organic, antibiotic-free (mainly found in meat and poultry) and fresh ingredients into your daily meals
- Consume whole grains, vegetables and fruit; and cut out processed food and reduce meat consumption
- Always speak with your doctor regarding what can be treated with antibiotics and don’t ask for them unless he/she tells you its necessary
- Incorporate natural herbal remedies to fortify your immune system. Garlic, turmeric, Manuka honey and ginger are known to ease symptoms and aid in healing
- Prevention is better than cure so take measures to keep yourself healthy in the most natural way possible
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