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Are We Overusing Antibiotics and Antibacterial Products?

The problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria has troubled the modern world since the advent of mass-produced penicillin around 1943. After only a few years, bacteria that were resistant to treatment with penicillin arrived on the scene. The more freely doctors used penicillin, the more prevalent the resistant bacteria seemed to become.

But it's not that antibiotics create or cause antibacterial resistance. Rather, the overuse of antibiotics favors the proliferation of the stronger microorganisms that already exist, such as antibiotic-resistant staph, TB, and pneumonia bacteria. Staph infections are mentioned frequently in the news these days. Antibiotic-resistant staph bacteria take a deadly toll on patients in hospitals and elsewhere.

Organisms with characteristics that enable them to better survive in an environment will reproduce more often and therefore become more numerous than weaker individuals of the same species. This applies to small animals like bacteria as well as to large animals like humans. So, when people use antibiotics, they create an environment that kills off bacteria that are unprotected against the antibiotics, while bacteria that are resistant remain to reproduce. Because of this basic process, the FDA reports that the use of antibiotics will inevitably lead to a world with more antibiotic-resistant organisms.

This does not mean that no one should ever be treated with antibiotics. If no one ever used antibiotics, antibiotic-resistant bacteria would be less common. However, "normal" bacteria, left untreated, can be just as dangerous to an infected child as antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In the first case, the child may become extremely sick or die if someone doesn't kill the bacteria with antibiotics, and in the second case, the child may become extremely sick or die because someone can't kill the bacteria with antibiotics.

The point is that the more sparingly we use antibiotics, and the more careful we are about using them properly, the longer we'll be able to use them. We can slow down the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria by slowing down the use of antibiotics. Many parents expect a pediatrician to prescribe antibiotics for their child whenever he gets a bad cold or the flu, but these bugs are generally caused by viruses, which antibiotics can't kill. The best thing to do is to trust your family doctor to know when antibiotics are needed. The CDC notes that studies have found that doctors often give in to patients' demands for antibiotics even when they're not necessary. Also, when your doctor does give antibiotics to you or your family, make sure you follow her instructions exactly. Skipping or delaying doses can prevent the antibiotic from working properly and killing all of the bacteria.

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