Antibiotic Resistance: What to Know and What to Do About It

Antibiotic resistance makes it harder to treat infections—and it’s a growing problem.

Tablets, capsules, pill, medicine

Updated on March 29, 2023.

Among the great advances in modern medicine, antibiotics have been one of the biggest success stories. Numerous illnesses that would have been deadly hundreds of years ago have been rendered manageable with these treatments.

But today we’re facing a new challenge, one in which many types of infections are resistant to the effects of even our strongest antibiotics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has noted that we live in a “post-antibiotic era,” meaning that some infections are resistant to any existing antibiotics.

Why is this happening?

Antibiotic resistance explained

Antibiotic medicines are less effective than they have been in the past due to a combination of factors. For one, patients are sicker in general and are more likely to develop more infections, which require more treatment. But many factors are related to ineffective and incorrect use of antibiotics:

  • Antibiotics are over-prescribed.
  • Antibiotics are overused in healthy food-producing animals.
  • Patients may not complete their full antibiotic prescriptions, may take someone else’s prescription, or may save leftover antibiotics and take them again the next time they get sick without getting a new prescription.

The consequences of such practices are severe. Each year, antibiotic-resistant bacteria cause at least 35,000 deaths and more than 2.8 million illnesses in the United States, according to a 2019 report from the CDC.

What can we do about antibiotic resistance?

For starters, the best approach is to avoid getting sick in the first place. Practice good hygiene, get any and all vaccinations recommended by your healthcare provider (HCP), and avoid contact with others when you or they are ill. When you prepare meals, don’t forget to keep your work area clean, keep raw meats away from other food, and cook meat all the way through.

In the meantime, follow these guidelines for smart antibiotic use:

Use antibiotics only when necessaryMany conditions—such as ear, upper respiratory, and throat infections—will resolve on their own without an antibiotic since they’re caused by viruses rather than bacteria. In these cases, the only thing you’re getting with an antibiotic prescription is an increased risk of side effects and a chance of contributing to resistance. Remember, all antibiotics come with certain risks.

Take the full course of an antibiotic. That means taking every pill as prescribed by your HCP, even if you start to feel better before taking your last dose. If you are getting stomach irritation or other side effects, along the way, talk with your HCP before stopping the antibiotic.

Never take an antibiotic that has not been prescribed precisely for your current condition. You might feel tempted to use up a half-empty bottle in your medicine cabinet from a previous prescription, but remember that different antibiotics have different uses, and taking one for a throat infection when you have a leg infection is unlikely to resolve your condition and is likely to create more issues.

Protect yourself

When you’re ill, speak to your HCP about your symptoms and the best course of treatment. Depending on your situation, you may be advised to try standard over-the-counter therapies, such as:

  • Acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain and fever
  • Pseudoephedrine, loratadine, nasal saline sprays, oxymetazoline, or phenylephrine for nasal congestion
  • Dextromethorphan (cough suppressant) or guaifenesin (expectorant) for cold and flu 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. But it takes everyone’s help and cooperation to solve this problem for the good of patients everywhere.

Article sources open article sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Antibiotic / Antimicrobial Resistance (AR / AMR): Biggest Threats and Data.” October 28, 2020. Accessed December 18, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States 2019.” December 2019. Accessed December 21, 2020.
American Hospital Association. “Are Medicare Patients Getting Sicker?” December 2012. Accessed December 21, 2020.
W Raghupathi & V Raghupathi. “An Empirical Study of Chronic Diseases in the United States: A Visual Analytics Approach.” International journal of environmental research and public health. March 2015. 15(3), 431.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “CDC: 1 in 3 antibiotic prescriptions unnecessary.” January 1, 2016. Accessed December 21, 2020.
Mayo Clinic. “Antibiotics: Are you misusing them?” February 15, 2020. Accessed December 21, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Livestock and Poultry Producers: Protect People and Animals.” June 18, 2020. Accessed December 21, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Antibiotic Do’s & Don’ts.” January 31, 2020. Accessed December 21, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Antibiotic Resistance Questions and Answers.” January 31, 2020. Accessed December 21, 2020.
World Health Organization. “Antibiotic resistance.” July 31, 2020. Accessed December 21, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Antibiotic Prescribing and Use in Doctor’s Offices.” October 30, 2019. Accessed December 21, 2020.
American College of Cardiology. “Common Antibiotics Increase Risk of Cardiac Arrhythmias, Cardiac Death.” November 9, 2015. Accessed December 21, 2020.
G Trifirò, M de Ridder. “Use of azithromycin and risk of ventricular arrhythmia. CMAJ: Canadian Medical Association journal = journal de l'Association medical Canadienne.” April 17, 2018. 189(15), E560–E568.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Protecting Patients and Stopping Outbreaks.” February 12, 2020. Accessed December 21, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Food Safety: Antibiotic Resistance, Food, and Food Animals.” November 2, 2020. Accessed December 21, 2020.

More On

7 Must-Know Facts About MRSA


7 Must-Know Facts About MRSA
Find out how to recognize signs of an infection with this antibiotic-resistant bacteria—and what to do about it.