Have Antibiotics Reached Their Expiration Date?

Have Antibiotics Reached Their Expiration Date?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has announced that every year antibiotic-resistant bacteria will cause at least 23,000 deaths in the U.S. and at least 2 million illnesses.

We’ve come to be spoiled—so many illnesses that would have led to death hundreds of years ago have been downgraded to a “nuisance” with the use of antibiotics. But we’re facing a new period—one in which infections are resistant to even our strongest antibiotics. It’s not unusual for me to work an ER shift and find myself struggling to find an antibiotic that will work for a patient’s infection. At times I have had to order a large combination of antibiotics—the overlap is necessary to try to overcome the bacteria’s resistance.

The CDC notes that some patients are already in a “post-antibiotic era,” meaning that their infections are resistant to any existing antibiotics, period. Unfortunately, the resistance grows quickly. Ten years ago, one type of resistant bacteria was seen in just one state. It has now been reported in 38 states.

Why is this happening? A combination of factors: sicker patients in general are more likely to develop more infections, over-prescribing and patient behaviors, such as not completing a full antibiotic prescription, taking someone else’s prescription or saving leftover antibiotics and self-starting them the next time they get sick.

When should I give my child antibiotics?

I had a patient come into the ER the other night with a bad leg infection. When it started, she decided to take the leftover antibiotic prescribed for a sinus infection. This not only caused the leg infection to get worse (since the sinus antibiotic wasn’t appropriate for a skin infection), she suffered bad side effects from the unnecessary medication. This was (and is) a well-educated, smart lady who had made a very UN-smart decision.

In light of this frightening and growing resistance, what can you do?
Prevention is still number one. Practice good hygiene, get the vaccinations recommended by your physician and avoid contact with others when you are ill.

Follow these guidelines for smart antibiotic use:

  • Many conditions, such as ear, upper respiratory and throat infections, will resolve on their own without an antibiotic since a virus causes them. In these cases, the only thing you’re getting with an antibiotic prescription is an increased risk of side effects and chance of resistance. Remember, no antibiotic is harmless. We’re seeing this more and more with new findings of increased risk of heart arrhythmias—even with traditional antibiotics.
  • Take the full course of an antibiotic. Period. If you are getting stomach irritation or other side effects, talk with your doctor before stopping the antibiotic so that he or she can change it.
  • Never take an antibiotic that has not been prescribed precisely for your current condition. Different antibiotics have different uses, and taking one for a throat infection when you have a leg infection will just set you up for problems.

Protect yourself: Only take antibiotics when necessary
When you’re ill, try the standard over-the-counter therapies for pain and fever (Tylenol, Motrin), nasal congestion (pseudoephedrine, Claritin, nasal saline sprays, Afrin, phenylephrine), cough suppressants (dextromethorphan) or expectorants (guaifenesin) to treat your symptoms. Unless you have a high fever, significant pain in any one area, difficulty breathing with productive cough or other significant discomfort, many of these common symptoms will improve with these non-prescription treatments.

The CDC, researchers and physicians everywhere are taking steps to help reduce the spread of antibiotic resistance, and with smart changes, we can succeed. But we’re going to need your help.

Get more health tips from Dr. Darria. Follow her on Sharecare.

Medically reviewed in January 2020.

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