Have you ever seen your healthcare provider and been upset because he or she refused to give you an antibiotic? If so, you are not alone. Antibiotics cure so many diseases that many of us have gotten into the habit of expecting them. When we don’t get what we expect, we get frustrated.
If you’re wondering what your healthcare provider is thinking when you don’t get an antibiotic, here are a few possible reasons:
Antibiotics Don’t Always Work
There are four kinds of infections: bacterial, viral, parasitic and fungal. Antibiotics only work against bacterial infections. If your healthcare provider thinks you have a different type of infection, you probably won’t get an antibiotic.
If you get the wrong medication, you could wind up getting sicker or staying sick for longer. This is true even for something as relatively harmless as an antibiotic.
Of course, just because you have a different type of infection today doesn’t mean that you can’t get a secondary bacterial infection tomorrow. If this happens, you may eventually need an antibiotic. Until then, your provider probably won’t give you one.
Taking an Antibiotic to Prevent Future infections
You may wonder why you can’t get an antibiotic to prevent a future secondary bacterial infection. After all, in some cases people are given antibiotics to prevent an infection. Why can’t you get an antibiotic when you have a viral infection such as the flu?
Preventative antibiotics are commonly given only when an infection would put the patient’s health at high risk. This is the case after surgery or when getting chemotherapy, for instance. In the case of the flu, the risk of serious harm from a bacterial infection is fairly low.
Preventative antibiotics are only given in high-risk situations because providers are trying to prevent a situation known as “antibiotic resistance”.
What is Antibiotic Resistance?
The term “antibiotic resistance” refers to bacteria that are too strong to be killed by an antibiotic.
When a patient has a bacterial infection, there are millions of bacteria living inside their body. When providers give them antibiotics, they are trying to kill off every one of these millions of bacteria. Unfortunately not all bacteria are the same. Some of them are stronger and some are weaker.
When you take an antibiotic it’s easy to kill the weaker bacteria. They tend to die during the first few days you are taking your medicine. The stronger bacteria are harder to kill and may take more days to die.
If you stop taking your medication as soon you start to feel better, some of the strong bacteria may survive. They may grow even stronger. If you give some of these stronger bacteria to someone else, the cycle begins all over again. The bacteria grow and create more stronger bacteria in the new patient.
If stronger and stronger bacteria pass from person to person often enough, eventually the bacteria can become so strong that they cannot be killed by the antibiotic. These are called “antibiotic resistant” bacteria.
Why Are Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Bad?
If we had an unlimited number of antibiotics, it might not be so bad to have antibiotic resistant bacteria. If one antibiotic didn’t kill a particular bacteria, we could just switch to another antibiotic. This is, in fact, what providers try to do. If you have a bacterial ear infection and one antibiotic doesn’t work, your provider will give you a different antibiotic. They will keep doing this until they find one that can kill all the bacteria in your ear.
Unfortunately, as more and more providers have given more and more antibiotics over the years, and more and more people have not taken all of their medication, stronger and stronger bacteria have developed. There are now some bacteria that are resistant to all, or nearly all, antibiotics. When patients get infections with these bacteria, the risk of death is very high.
What to Do?
Researchers are, of course, hard at work looking for new antibiotics. However, finding them is in the future. In the meantime, there are patients dying from antibiotic resistant infections right now.
The best ways to protect everyone from antibiotic-resistant bacteria are:
- to only give antibiotics to those who really need them
- to encourage patients to take all of their antibiotic, so that no bacteria survive to pass on to another patient
The next time you go to see your healthcare provider expecting to get an antibiotic, try not to be too disappointed if you don’t get one. Your healthcare provider knows exactly how valuable antibiotics are. By not giving you one today, when you don’t really need it, he or she is hoping to make sure one will be available years from now, when it could mean the difference between life and death.