It’s been a year since the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, and since then, antibiotic resistance has been pushed out of the headlines. But this vital health issue shouldn’t be sidelined.
Table of contents
- 1/ Where is antibiotic resistance a problem?
- What are antibiotics?
- What do antibiotics treat?
- What causes antibiotic resistance?
- What is being done to tackle antibiotic resistance?
- 2/ Do antibiotics work against viruses?
- Do antibiotics work against COVID-19?
- Is it safe to have the COVID-19 vaccine if you’re taking antibiotics?
- 3/ How long do antibiotics take to work?
- What to do if you think you need antibiotics?
- How to take antibiotics responsibly?
“A global catastrophe that threatens the lives of millions of people around the world.” This is how Antibiotic Research UK describes the phenomenon of antibiotic resistance. Overuse and misuse of these essential medicines is rendering some of them useless, putting us all at risk. But why and where is antibiotic resistance becoming a problem, and what can we do about it?
Antibiotic resistance is an issue worldwide, but moreso in countries that have a relaxed approach to administering antibiotics.
In Thailand, for example, antibiotics are “widely available and inappropriately sold and given by grocery stores and retail shops” according to a 2019 study published by the Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand.
The inevitable affect, the researchers note, is that antibiotic-resistant bacteria are commonly and freely circulating through the population, meaning some illnesses are no longer treatable. Read more about potential issues if you are buying antibiotics in Southeast Asian countries.
The situation is similar in the UAE, where prescription-required medicines are routinely sold without prescriptions.
In America, it’s estimated that 35,000 people die from drug-resistant infections every year, while in Europe, it’s estimated that measures to tackle antibiotic resistance could prevent 27,000 deaths and save €1.4 billion per year.
Stella Kyriakides, European Commissioner for Health
Antibiotics are a group of medicines that are used to fight bacterial and some parascitic infections. They do this by killing the bacteria that’s causing the infection, or stopping it from reproducing and spreading. Sometimes called antimicrobials or antibacterials, antibiotics can be taken in a number of ways including injections, tablets and creams.
They’re a vital weapon in the war against tuberculosis, for example – an illness that affected 10 million people worldwide in 2019 – as well as being used to fight infections including bacterial tonsillitis, urinary tract infections, respiratory tract infections, whooping cough and skin infections.
Different types of antibiotics target specific bacteria. For example, Amoxicillin (a sort of Penicillin) is often prescribed to treat ear infections, while Trimethoprim is commonly given to treat urinary tract infections caused by E.coli.
The more antibiotics that are prescribed inappropriately, the more likely resistance is to develop.
A common misconception is that it’s the individual who becomes resistant to antibiotics. In fact, it’s the bacteria that adapts and develops resistance, rendering certain antibiotics useless.
Misuse and overuse of antibiotics is the biggest cause of antibiotic resistance and the rise of the so-called superbug – illnesses that no longer respond to treatment and are now potentially deadly. These superbugs emerge when bacteria have not been properly treated with antibiotics and have learnt to become resistant; certain strains of tuberculosis and pneumonia have already developed resistance so can’t be treated easily, if at all.
The WHO also warns that, without urgent action, the world is heading for a “post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries can once again kill.”
At the 2015 World Health Assembly, the WHO outlined a global action plan to tackle antimicrobial and antibiotic resistance. The plan aimed to raise awareness and knowledge of the topic, to reduce the rate of infection and limit the administration of antibiotics by working with countries to develop more optimal strategies.
Antibiotics are completely useless against viruses. A huge number of everyday illnesses are caused by viruses and therefore don’t need antibiotics. If you’re suffering with a cough or cold at the change of season, antibiotics won’t help.
Antibiotics were prescribed for COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic when there was little proven treatment for the disease. But they are no longer used as a COVID-19 treatment since we can now be sure it is a virus, not a bacterial infection.
However, a person might develop a bacterial infection as a complication of COVID-19 and in this case they might be prescribed antibiotics.
The COVID-19 vaccine and antibiotics do two completely different things. The vaccine helps your body’s immune system to kill the virus, while antibiotics fight bacterial infections. So having the vaccine shouldn’t affect the infection you’re taking antibiotics for, and the antibiotics shouldn’t affect the vaccine.
Although antibiotics start doing their work straight away, you might not feel any benefit for a few days. Usually, your symptoms will start to improve in one to three days.
Once you start feeling better, you might be tempted to stop taking your antibiotics early, but it’s important to carry on until the end of the course. This is because there may be some bacteria remaining. If you don’t finish the antibiotics, your infection could come back – and be stronger and antibiotic-resistant.
Even if you live in a country where antibiotics are available without a prescription, and you think your self-diagnosis is accurate, you could do more harm than good by buying them over the counter. Antibiotics could interfere with other medicines you might be taking, or even damage your organs.
Dr Diab Maaruf Kurdi, head of pharmacy at Burjeel Hospital in the UAE
Being prescribed a course of antibiotics by a medical professional is the first step, but there’s more that needs to be considered for antibiotics to work effectively.
You must follow the instructions and finish the course even if you’re feeling better. It’s also important to note whether the medicine should be taken before or after food, or with water. Never share antibiotics and do not accept them if a pharmacist offers them without a prescription.