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What are the risks of overusing antibiotics?

Lisa Dumkow, PharmD
Pharmacy Specialist

The risks of overusing antibiotics, which happens when antibiotics are overprescribed or prescribed inappropriately, include the following negative results:

  • no relief of symptoms (such as being prescribed antibiotics for a viral rather than bacterial infection)
  • disruption of the normal, healthy flora in the digestive system, which can take nearly two years to correct and lead to other infections
  • antimicrobial resistance, so that when a person seriously needs an antibiotic, it will no longer be effective

Antibiotics are medications that treat an infection caused by bacteria. They do not treat infections caused by a virus or fungus. The discovery of penicillin in the 1940s was a huge step forward for modern medicine, as doctors now have medications to treat infectious diseases that would otherwise have killed a patient. The availability of antibiotics has saved countless lives over the years; however, the overuse of antibiotics can have several negative consequences.

Antibiotics, like all medications, do have side effects ranging from mild symptoms to a severe allergic reaction. If an antibiotic is taken when it’s not really needed, the patient risks suffering side effects without receiving any benefit from that medication. The overuse of antibiotics can cause a patient to develop an infection of the colon called Clostridium difficile (or C. diff for short). This infection can occur when the antibiotic kills all the good bacteria, along with the bad, and leaving only C. diff behind to cause an infection.

Overuse of antibiotics can also lead to antibiotic resistance, perhaps the most worrisome consequence. When bacteria are exposed to antibiotics, they can develop mutations which cause the antibiotic to no longer work against those bacteria. It is for this reason, physicians encourage patients to finish all of their antibiotics, to make sure all the bacteria are dead, and do not have a chance to multiply. If a strain of bacteria acquires enough mutations against antibiotics, then we may get to the point that none of our current antibiotics work. In essence this would take us back to the pre-penicillin era, when we did not have antibiotics.

The risks of overusing antibiotics are developing resistance to antibiotics and increasing the likelihood of side effects from antibiotics. Antibiotics are medications that fight bacterial infections. Often the bacteria learn how to avoid antibiotics over time. The more exposure to an antibiotic that bacteria have, the more likely the bacteria is to learn to avoid it. This is how bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics. Patients who use antibiotics frequently are more likely to harbor or be infected by bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. This ability that bacteria have to develop resistance to antibiotics is why it is so important to take antibiotics appropriately and only as prescribed.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.