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Antibiotics resistance: what you need to know
Many countries have strict rules governing the use of antibiotics. In the UK, Europe and US, they will only be prescribed if a doctor is confident the cause of an illness is bacterial and not caused by a virus or other pathogen. However, not all countries are so vigilant.
A 2016 study published by the Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand revealed that antibiotics in Thailand are “widely available and inappropriately sold and given by grocery stores and retails shops”.
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.
The situation is similar in the UAE, where prescription-required medicines are routinely sold without an accompanying prescription.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) takes this issue very seriously: “Where antibiotics can be bought for human or animal use without a prescription, the emergence and spread of resistance is made worse.”
It 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.”
The more antibiotics that are prescribed inappropriately, says Dr Jace Clarke, Chief Medical Officer at William Russell, the more likely resistance is to develop.
What causes antibiotic resistance?
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 entirely 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).
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 calls antibiotic resistance “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security and development today.”
What do antibiotics treat?
Antibiotics should only be used to treat illnesses caused by susceptible infections, for example 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.
Dr Clarke stresses there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to antibiotics. “Some bacterial infections can be self-limiting in fit, healthy people” he says, “for example Salmonella, a common cause of food poisoning.” A doctor would therefore “establish sensitivity of the bacteria and allocate an appropriate antibiotic”.
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 cold at the change of season, chances are antibiotics won’t help.
What to do if you think you need antibiotics
Even if you think your self-diagnosis is accurate, and as tempting as it might be to buy the tablets over the counter, you could do more harm than good. 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, says: “It’s important that medication is not purchased without the doctor’s consultation, because the doctor will take into consideration your overall medical condition. Furthermore, the medication that you purchase may not be right for your condition and could cause further health complications.”
Dr Clarke also warns that a non-bacterial illness that goes undiagnosed, such as malaria, could get worse without formal identification and appropriate treatment from a doctor.
How to take antibiotics responsibly
Being prescribed a course of antibiotics by a medical professional is the first step, but there’s more that needs considering in order for the 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.