What You Need to Know About Antibiotic Resistance

Medically Reviewed By Alan Carter, Pharm.D.
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Antibiotic resistance is when disease-causing organisms, such as bacteria, develop a resistance to antibiotics. It often makes infections hard to treat, resulting in higher healthcare costs and mortality rates. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported about 5 million deaths worldwide related to antibiotic resistance in 2019. 

Additionally, an estimated 2.8 million related infections occur in the United States each year. Over 35,000 people die as a result.

This article will discuss why bacterial resistance to antibiotics is a problem. It will also explain how antibiotic-resistant bacteria develop and what methods we can use to curb them.

What is antibiotic resistance?

Pills next to a glass of water
Tatjana Zlatkovic/Stocksy United

Antibiotic resistance is when antibiotics become less effective in fighting bacteria. Disease-causing organisms develop defensive strategies against antibiotics.

Antibiotics are drugs that can treat bacterial infections. Doctors often administer them as part of treatments for:

Doctors also administer antibiotics when performing specialized medical procedures, such as:

  • organ transplants
  • joint replacements
  • tooth removal, including extraction and implants
  • oral surgery
  • teeth cleaning 
  • cancer therapy

Experts say this problem can affect people at any stage of life. It can also cause problems for healthcare practitioners, veterinary professionals, and agricultural workers.

How does antibiotic resistance occur?

According to the CDC, disease-causing organisms can develop antibiotic resistance in the following ways:

  • They develop strong outer shells that prevent antibiotics from entering their cell.
  • They use pumps in their cell walls to remove antibiotic drugs that enter their cell.
  • They destroy antibiotics with special proteins known as enzymes.
  • They change the antibiotic’s target and render it ineffective.
  • They develop new cell processes that enable them to bypass the effects of antibiotics.

The following factors are aggravating the problem of antibiotic resistance:

  • use of antibiotics without prescription 
  • overprescription of antibiotics
  • wrongful use of antibiotics to treat viral infections, such as colds or flu
  • nonadherence to expert recommendations on the use of antibiotics
  • sharing antibiotics with others
  • saving antibiotics for later 
  • lack of new drug development 
  • lack of regulation of antibiotics in some countries

Evidence suggests that antibiotic indication, choice of antibiotic, or duration of use practices are incorrect 30–50% of the time.

Why is antibiotic resistance a problem?

Antibiotic resistance can make common infections hard to treat. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that tuberculosis, gonorrhea, and similar conditions are becoming more and more resistant to treatment.

Other reasons why antibiotic resistance is concerning include:

  • Higher medical bills: A person with antibiotic resistance may need more expensive drugs than antibiotics for common infections.
  • Prolonged hospital stays: Infections may linger even after antibiotic use, requiring longer hospital stays.
  • Longer duration of illnesses: Symptoms of infections may recur due to the emergence of bacteria resistant to antibiotics.
  • Risky medical procedures: Surgeries and other similar operations may become less desirable as the risk of infection increases.
  • The possibility of untreatable infections: As resistance mechanisms emerge and spread, new hard-to-treat infections may develop.
  • Higher death rates: Mortality rates may increase due to the spread of untreatable infections. Higher medical bills may also contribute to this problem.

The WHO believes that antibiotic resistance is increasing to serious levels worldwide.

Superbugs

“Superbugs” are antibiotic-resistant, disease-causing organisms. These organisms develop defensive strategies that help them resist the effects of antibiotics.

They can multiply and share their resistance traits with other organisms, making infections extremely challenging to treat.

One type of superbug is methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). MRSA can cause hard-to-treat versions of common infections, such as:

  • Cellulitis: This is a severe skin infection that causes pain and swelling. Other symptoms include redness and warm skin.
  • Impetigo: This is a highly contagious skin infection that causes red sores on the face. It typically affects children who live in hot, humid climates.
  • Endocarditis: This is a serious condition in which the heart’s inner lining becomes inflamed. Symptoms include high temperature, chills, and cough.
  • Boils: This is a pus-filled bump that forms on a hair follicle or oil gland. It can cause pain, redness, and inflammation.
  • Osteomyelitis: This is a bone infection that causes swelling of the bone marrow. It can also cause fever, redness, and irritability.

How can we prevent or control antibiotic resistance?

Antibiotic resistance is a serious emerging problem, but mitigation is possible.

The WHO recommends that people adopt the following measures to help address the problem:

  • Use only prescription antibiotics.
  • Refrain from requesting antibiotics from healthcare professionals.
  • Follow the recommendations of healthcare professionals for antibiotics.
  • Avoid sharing or using leftover antibiotics.
  • Regularly wash hands to prevent infections.
  • Prepare food under strict hygienic conditions.
  • Avoid close contact with people who have infections.
  • Practice safer sex.
  • Keep vaccinations up to date.
  • Cook foods thoroughly and store them at the proper temperatures.
  • Separate raw foods from cooked ones.
  • Drink clean, potable water at all times.

Additional preventive measures include:

  • recognizing and reporting signs and symptoms of infections for prompt treatment
  • cleaning hands thoroughly after touching, feeding, or caring for animals
  • sticking to safe food and drinks when traveling abroad

Healthcare professionals can also take the following steps to help fight antibiotic resistance:

  • Wash hands and medical devices regularly.
  • Keep healthcare facilities clean.
  • Conform to current guidelines when administering antibiotics.
  • Report antibiotic-resistant infections to the right department for immediate action.
  • Explain the best practices of antibiotic use to recipients.

Summary

Antibiotic resistance is when disease-causing organisms, such as bacteria, develop a resistance to antibiotics. It often makes infections hard to treat.

Risk factors include using antibiotics without prescription, improperly using antibiotics for viral infections, and not following expert recommendations on using antibiotics.

Antibiotic resistance can cause various problems. These include higher medical bills, prolonged hospital stays, and longer duration of illnesses. 

You can take some steps to help mitigate antibiotic resistance. Try to avoid requesting antibiotics from healthcare professionals. Try to also wash your hands regularly and prepare all foods under strict hygienic conditions.

Discuss proper antibiotic usage and alternative treatment options with your doctor.

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Medical Reviewer: Alan Carter, Pharm.D.
Last Review Date: 2022 Sep 16
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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