Could Antibiotics be the Enemy, and Bacteria our Allies?

“Medicine sometimes snatches away health,
sometimes gives it.”
~Ovid (Ancient Roman classical Poet and Author of Metamorphoses, 43 BC-17)

Antibiotics have contributed to diminishing and, in some cases, irradicating disease around the world. It certainly wouldn’t be appropriate to suggest that we should stop using antibiotics; however, it is vital for the public to be aware of the dangers they face with incorrect antibiotic use and over-prescription of antibiotics in a pharmaceutical company dominated medical field.

“Even though these antibiotics are very profitable for pharmaceutical companies they are creating a potentially widespread problem.” (3) For years, antibiotics have been overprescribed in medical practice and have been a major contributing factor to the increase of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. (1) This occurs when the antibiotic kills a large number of bacterial organisms in the body, but does not kill those bacteria which have developed a slight resistance to the antibiotic. Thus, these antibiotic resistant bacteria remain alive, while their competition for food and nutrients in the body have been killed off by the antibiotic. This causes proliferation of the resistant bacteria, which often can cause worse illness that can be transferred to others in a community.

It is a common misconception that antibiotics can kill any sickness causing organism. Often, an illness is caused by a virus, and antibiotics cannot kill these. Antibiotics are designed to only affect bacteria. It is important for concerned parents to not “expect or insist on an antibiotic if the doctor says the cause of the child’s illness is viral.” (2)

Another contribution to antibiotic resistant bacteria is patients who have been prescribed an antibiotic not taking the drug for the doctor-set amount of time. Many discontinue the medication when they start feeling better. However, by stopping the treatment early, the patient is not killing off every last infective bacteria in his or her system. When the symptoms go away, it only means that a lot of the bacteria have been killed, but not all. Most importantly, the bacteria that are killed first are those which are most susceptible to the antibiotic, and those which are left still alive are the most resistant to the antibiotic.

By stopping the treatment early, patients are destroying the weak bacteria and allowing the strong bacteria to remain. This can cause the illness to reinitiate and this time, it will likely be much more difficult to treat.

Everyone, yet especially women, should be conscientious of only taking antibiotics when absolutely necessary, due to their side effects. Antibiotics are non-discriminatory, and will kill off both good and bad bacteria. Believe it or not, in the space that your body occupies right now, 10% of your cells are you (mammalian cells), and 90% of the rest of the cells are bacterial. Granted, those cells are so small that their mass is much less than that of the mammalian cells. The average weight of all the bacteria in and on a person is said to be around 3lbs. (5) However, it should be noted that these bacteria are vital for our health.

Called your “normal flora,” the bacteria which exist naturally in your body all the time have created a cutthroat environment. They compete for space and nutrients to grow, but typically no one bacterium can out-compete the other; all the different species remain limited. They make it difficult for new bacteria to find a foothold to start infections.

Yet, when a person takes antibiotics, he or she kills of most of this normal flora of bacteria. By doing this, one kills off the weak bacteria and leaves strong bacteria which, due to the new lack of competition, can overgrow and cause illness.

This is why the side effects of antibiotics are yeast infections, diarrhea, and fungal infections of the mouth (thrush). These areas were high in bacteria, but now only those organisms which are strong enough to resist the antibiotic remain and over grow to cause a variety of sicknesses.

Responsible use of antibiotics by both the patient and careful prescription by doctors is vital to the long term health of society. More patients need to be educated on the way an antibiotic affects the body and how best to utilize this valuable, yet problematic medicine.

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2 Responses to Could Antibiotics be the Enemy, and Bacteria our Allies?

  1. prelawstudent says:

    This is a fascinating topic. I’ve heard a lot recently about the negative side-effects of using too many antibiotics, and as a culture, we seem to favor just that. It seems like there is a recent trend of bringing kids to the doctor and getting prescriptions for every “symptom” possible, yet there isn’t really conclusive results to justify so much medication. Furthermore, the whole super-germ thing is equally scary. The attitude of “I can’t be sick today; I have too many things to do” seems to affect people’s decisions to take a ton of cold medicine when they probably don’t need it. Also, the scare of calling in for work or classes and missing too much is another impetus for over-medicating. Whatever happened to having a sick day where you actually were able to rest? The last time I had the peace of mind was in elementary school.

    It seems society itself has a large role to play in this problem–perhaps if “we” were more ready to accept legitimate sick days and as you said, be more responsible consumers of medicine then, perhaps, we could slow the problem of creating a “super bacteria”.

  2. bad dog says:

    Much of the problem stems from parents that are paying lots of money for a sick child doctor’s office visit and they pressure the doctor to prescribe an antibiotic to ‘make it better’ rather than letting most bacteria infections run their course.’ Parents need to to let the health care professional make an assessment of the illness and decide whether an antibiotic is indicated.

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