Bacteria, the tiny living organisms that cause bacterial infections, are what we fight with antibiotics. But antibiotics don't always kill bacteria so easily. To fight back, doctors and scientists come up with stronger antibiotics. The drugs are harder on our bodies, and some have to be given while you are at the hospital. Even then, it's still not enough to kill some bacteria. This kind of hard-to-kill bacteria is called antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
At least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).1
Super bugs, as they're sometimes called, are hard to fight. But there is a new approach doctors are taking that can help slow their spread. The CDC asks that antibiotics be used correctly. It sounds simple, but when a person has a virus like the cold or flu, antibiotics don't help.
The idea that antibiotics won't help goes against what most people think when they get sick. You see a doctor, you get a pill and they make it better. But the fact is—with a virus, people usually get well on their own. The CDC asks doctors to make sure that antibiotics be used only on bacterial infections.
When the right drug is used the right way, it makes a big difference. But when it comes to antibiotics, the wrong drug can make things worse. Drug-resistant bacteria is a serious problem doctors are working hard to learn about. Here are a few things you should know about antibiotics so you can help slow the spread of super bugs:
- Antibiotics don't fix common viruses like the cold or flu. People might get a bacterial infection after a cold or flu, but most people with a viral infection don't need antibiotics. If they're used too often, antibiotics don't work as well against the bacteria they were made to treat.
- Most coughs and upper respiratory infections are viral. If your doctor says you don't need antibiotics, be glad—antibiotics can cause an upset stomach and allergic reactions. To make you feel better, ask your doctor for ways to make you more comfortable.
- Most ear, sinus and lung infections don't need antibiotics. For most healthy adults and children who have an infection that isn't spreading, antibiotics won't help you feel better any sooner.
- When you take antibiotics, follow your doctor's directions. When you start to feel better, it's easy to forget to finish your antibiotics. But stopping can lead to drug-resistant bacteria. Finish off the infection by finishing your antibiotic.
- Never take antibiotics without a prescription. And if you have some left over from the last time you were sick, throw them away. They can do more harm than good.
- Slow the spread of bacteria by washing your hands. The CDC says you should wash your hands:
- Before, during and after preparing food
- Before eating
- After using the toilet
- After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
- Before and after caring for someone who is sick
- After blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing
- After touching an animal or animal waste
- After touching garbage
- Before and after treating a cut or wound
Also, wash your hands with soap on the backs of your hands, between your fingers and under your nails for at least 20 seconds. Hum "Happy Birthday" for an easy way to time it out. Rinse off and then dry using a clean towel.
When you do get sick, see a doctor right away. The sooner you're seen, the sooner you can get treated, and the sooner you can feel better. Antibiotics do their best work within 72 hours of an infection, so timing is important.