Antibiotics were considered a wonder drug when they were first discovered. Before then, the simplest of bacterial infections could cause death. Antibiotics were freely prescribed because they worked well and there didn’t seem to be a downside to the drugs, other than potential side effects. But, bacteria are living organisms, so they can change and mutate in order to survive. And as antibiotics are used more and more, many bacteria are becoming resistant to the drugs. That’s why it’s important to know when it’s smart to take antibiotics—and when it’s not. What do antibiotics do? Bacteria are everywhere around us. Most of them aren’t harmful, some are even helpful. But some bacteria release toxins, which attack your body and cause infections. Antibiotics stop infections by killing these bacteria or preventing them from reproducing and spreading. The first antibiotic, penicillin, was discovered in the early 1900s and many types of antibiotics have been developed since. Not all antibiotics can fight all bacterial infections, so research into new antibiotics is ongoing. What is antibiotic resistance and what caused it? Antibiotics are among the most commonly prescribed drugs in the world, but they’re not always used properly. In the United States, almost one-third of antibiotic prescriptions are unnecessary, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Antibiotics may be given to treat a virus, which antibiotics don’t work on, or they’re prescribed for a bacterial infection that would likely have cleared up on its own. In some cases, patients or parents of sick children press their doctors for antibiotic prescriptions that they believe are necessary, but aren’t. Although the doctors may not agree antibiotics are needed, they may give the prescription anyway, to keep the patient or parent happy. Other factors contributing to antibiotic resistance include: Prescriptions not being taken as directed, such as missed or incorrect doses People not completing the full course of antibiotics because they feel better or don’t have any more symptoms Using someone else’s antibiotics Using leftover antibiotics from a previous prescription Most often, the signs and symptoms of a bacterial infection start to go away a few days after you start taking antibiotics and you may feel completely better shortly after. However, even if you’re feeling well, there still may be bacteria present and if you stop taking the antibiotics too early, the bacteria may begin to multiply again. This could result in a more serious infection that is more difficult to cure. For what types of infections are antibiotics prescribed? Antibiotics can only fight bacterial infections, which can occur anywhere inside your body or on your skin. Doctors, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants prescribe most antibiotics, but dentists do too. Some of the most commonly used antibiotics and infections they may treat include: Penicillins (penicillin and amoxicillin): ear infections, urinary tract infections, bronchitis and pneumonia, and skin infections Cephalosporin (cephalexin): ear infections, urinary tract infections, pneumonia, and infections of the bone and skin Tetracycline: skin infections, acne, urinary tract and genital infections, pneumonia, Helicobacter pylori (bacteria that causes stomach ulcers), and Lyme disease Macrolides (erythromycin and azithromycin): bronchitis, whooping cough (pertussis), sexually transmitted infections, ear infections, pneumonia, rheumatic fever, and skin infections. Dentists may prescribe a macrolide before performing dental work on people who are at high risk of contracting an infection. Fluoroquinolones (clindamycin and levofloxacin): bronchitis and pneumonia, skin infections, blood infections and infections affecting your internal organs Sulfonamide (Septra, Septrin, Bactrim): bronchitis and pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and “traveler’s diarrhea” Some antibiotics are reserved to treat specific infections that don’t respond to the more common antibiotics. For example, vancomycin is used to treat an infection called Clostridium difficile or C. diff. These antibiotics are quite expensive and considered last resorts. Why should I be concerned about antibiotic resistance? Everyone should be concerned about antibiotic resistance because infections that enter the circulation can cause a serious condition called sepsis, which can lead to severe complications and death. When doctors first noticed that some bacteria were becoming antibiotic-resistant, they simply changed the antibiotics they used. However over time, these other antibiotics are also becoming less effective. There is real concern we will soon have bacteria that won’t respond to any type of antibiotic and that common infections will be impossible to treat. You can help fight antibiotic resistance by: Washing your hands frequently to reduce your risk of contracting an infection Keeping all wounds clean and covered Taking any prescribed antibiotics exactly as directed and for the full length of time Not taking antibiotics that weren’t prescribed for you Not pushing your doctor to prescribe antibiotics if he or she thinks they aren’t necessary Antibiotics are essential drugs. It’s important we use these medications properly and only when necessary, so they can remain effective, curing infections and saving lives.