Antibiotics: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

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Ezinne Kalu-Awah Avatar

(Lead Editor)

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Julian has had a severe throat infection for three days now. 

She visited the doctor today, who diagnosed her with a bacterial infection and afterwards prescribed antibiotics. 

The doctor emphasized the importance of completing the prescribed course of antibiotics. She was educated on the need to finish the dose, even if she started feeling better.

Julian diligently followed the doctor’s instructions for only four days. On the fifth day, she felt she had recovered; she stopped taking the antibiotics and continued her daily activities. 

Kelvin, Julian’s colleague, has had a severe cough and fever for the last four days but hasn’t been able to visit the hospital.

While at work, Kelvin requested Julian’s leftover antibiotics to speed up his recovery.

Since antibiotics are designed to kill bacteria and have no effect on viral infections like the common cold or flu, Kelvin’s symptoms did not improve but only worsened until he decided to visit his doctor.

On the other hand, Julian, who didn’t finish her course of antimicrobial treatment, is at risk of developing antibiotic resistance. 

In today’s realm of modern medicine, antibiotics have transformed healthcare by effectively treating bacterial infections. 

However, their misuse and abuse have led to alarming consequences, posing a grave threat to public health. 

In this article, we will delve into the positive effects of antibiotic usage, the dangers of antibiotic misuse and abuse, and understand the implications of this on individual health, public health, and the urgent need for cautious use of antibiotics.

Understanding Antibiotics

When bacteria infect the body, they can cause a wide range of illnesses, such as respiratory infections, gastrointestinal infections, urinary infections, and gastrointestinal infections. 

Antibiotics are a class of medications used to treat these bacterial infections. 

They kill the bacteria or inhibit their growth, allowing the body’s immune system to effectively eliminate the infection. 

They are also prescribed by healthcare professionals to alleviate associated symptoms of bacterial infections. 

It was observed by the University of Oxford that there has been a 46% increment in the use of antibiotics in high-income countries and a 76% increase in low- and middle-income countries between 2000 and 2018.

Types of Antibiotics

Antibiotics are classified into two major spectrums: broad-spectrum and narrow-spectrum

  1. Broad-spectrum antibiotics: These are antibiotics designed to target a very large class of bacteria. They can kill both Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria. Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria are different types of bacteria that can be distinguished by a staining technique known as Gram stain. Gram-positive bacteria give a purple or blue colour under a microscope, and examples include Staphylococcus and Streptococcus. While gram-negative have a red or pink colour under a microscope and include Salmonella and Escherichia coli. Broad-spectrum antibiotics are often used when the specific bacteria causing an infection is unknown or when there is a need to treat multiple types of bacteria simultaneously.
  2. Narrow-spectrum antibiotics: Narrow-spectrum antibiotics are designed to act against a small, specific group of bacteria. They target either gram-positive or gram-negative bacteria. They are only used when the specific bacteria causing an infection is known and are targeted at less severe infections.

Antibiotics: The Good

  1. Treatment of bacterial infections: Antibiotics are effective in treating bacterial infections. This is achieved by killing or inhibiting the growth of bacteria. Antibiotics can help alleviate symptoms, prevent complications, and promote recovery. In severe cases of bacterial infections like meningitis, antibiotics can be life-saving.
  2. Preventing illnesses: Antibiotics can be used prophylactically to prevent infections in certain medical conditions. They may be given before surgery to reduce the risk of post-operative infections. Antibiotics also prevent complications in individuals with certain diseases like HIV and cystic fibrosis.
  3. Modern therapies: Modern therapies like chemotherapy and organ transplantation would not be successful without the use of antibiotics.

Antibiotics: The Bad

Easy accessibility to antibiotics has, over time, led to self-medication. Also of concern is misuse arising from low adherence to full antibiotics treatment. These primary factors often result in the following;

  1. Antibiotic resistance: Occurs when bacteria develop the ability to survive and grow in the presence of antibiotics that were originally effective in killing or inhibiting their growth. Bacteria begin to evade the antibiotic mechanism of action, and the medication is no longer effective when you really need it most. Consequently, the illness might last longer, resulting in more severe illnesses, making you visit the hospital more, use more potent antibiotics with more side effects, and increase the chances of death from bacterial infections. Resistant bacteria can then spread within communities and healthcare settings, posing a risk to others who may become infected with these hard-to-treat strains.
  2. Negative side effects: Self-prescribing antibiotics can lead to adverse side effects. Individuals may not be aware of allergies or medical conditions that could interact negatively with antibiotics. Allergic reactions ranging from mild rashes to digestive issues and severe anaphylaxis are common.
  3. Weakened immune system: Frequent antibiotic use, especially when not necessary, can weaken the body’s natural immune response, making people susceptible to infections in the long run. Antibiotics can also disrupt the balance of beneficial bacteria in the body, leading to issues like diarrhoea, yeast infection, and other imbalances.

Antibiotics: The Ugly

  1. Increased healthcare costs: Inappropriate antibiotic use can lead to increased medical costs arising from the need for more tests, treatments, doctor visits, and even hospitalization. It also drives up healthcare expenses on a societal level, as in severe cases, antibiotics misuse can lead to treatment failure, necessitating intravenous antibiotics, which are more potent and expensive. The greater the number of people who develop antibiotic resistance, the more the cost incurred. In these increments also come a waste of time and efforts of healthcare professionals and the antibiotics themselves.
  2. Threats to medical procedures: Antibiotics are often used before and after surgeries and other invasive procedures to prevent infections. If antibiotics are overused or misused, bacteria become resistant to them and make those antibiotics less effective in preventing or treating infections associated with those procedures.
  3. Reduced life expectancy: Due to antibiotic resistance, people may experience longer and more severe illnesses, leading to complications and even death. Infections that were once easily treatable with antibiotics can become life-threatening. It is estimated that by 2050, antibiotic resistance could cause 10 million deaths per year globally if not addressed.

Bottom Line

Antibiotics are powerful medicines that are designed to kill bacteria. 

When used correctly, they help treat bacterial infections, prevent post-surgical infections, and prevent complications from other diseases. 

However, it is important to use antibiotics only when prescribed by a healthcare professional, unlike Kelvin, and to complete the full course of treatment as directed, unlike Julian. 

This would help minimize your chances of developing antibiotic resistance and other complications. 

Ezinne Kalu-Awah Avatar

(Lead Editor)

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