Do you need antibiotics? Should you stop taking them?

Antibiotic-resistant pathogens have sent life expectancy into decline – particularly in the developed world – but there’s a way we can put an end to this – by making sure our medications don’t fall apart.

Early this year, the World Health Organization issued a huge report warning of the rapidly growing problem of deadly superbugs – bacteria that have become resistant to a host of treatments and antibiotics. By 2050, doctors could be out of options and at risk of having to treat individual patients with only a single option.

How did we get here? Common infections like cystic fibrosis, colitis and gonorrhea have been able to evade antibiotics for years and there are no good medical reasons for their increased success.

Not even humans can provide 100 percent protection from these drug-resistant organisms – although still, the entire population can be infected with them. But treatment-resistant bacteria infect even animals and plants, including humans.

Where does this money go, when pharmaceutical companies don’t want to spend it on expensive antibiotics?

Thankfully, there are several things you can do to put a stop to these drug-resistant infections. First, demand improvements in the way drugs are prepared and used. Take an inventory of any medications that are administered. Do you think they’re as effective as they should be? Then – and only then – will we have a chance of shrinking the world’s superbug arsenal.

Sick patients don’t want to depend on hospital-based care centers, they want to get well as quickly as possible.

Second, get involved. Demand an open dialogue on medication use and use it to improve both your medical condition and the global epidemic of antibiotic resistance. Demand prescriptions for antibiotics be approved by your health care provider and be reasonable – none are worth anything if they are not effective, convenient and safe.

Finally, stop taking antibiotics unnecessarily. Not only is overuse potentially dangerous, it also wastes vast amounts of money – money that could be put to better use fighting these problems.

As the non-profit Consumer Reports has pointed out: “Drying our laundry takes twice as long – and half as long – as hand washing, even though washing sheets in hot water would reduce the cost of an average load of laundry by $8.” The group adds, “Harmless everyday items such as antibacterial soap, hot and cold cereals, bleach, napkins, sanitary towels, shaving cream, even soda—all use small amounts of antibiotics, which can remain active in your body and resist many antibiotics.”

Every time we take an antibiotic, we are literally killing bacteria—without saving a single life. It’s a simple fact, but one the non-profit groups working to save lives don’t like to admit: Our pill popping has to stop.

The FDA’s moratorium on the use of an antibiotic to treat eczema—a common skin condition – illustrates this issue. The FDA has halted the use of sulfasalazine and cefixime and could be the first major step toward reducing antibiotic use.

As public health officials continue to discuss the new CDC guidelines on antibiotic use, we should focus on properly examining our medicines. Then we can invest in developing new antibiotics, and other treatments that work for people without causing harm to the animals that feed us or the plants that supply us with food.

In the words of Piers Paul Read, on ABC’s New Year’s Eve Countdown, “We may not even have antibiotics anymore, but we will be grateful that we’ve got clean water.”

Daren R. Todd, MD, MPH is senior editor at Choosing Wisely, a resource for healthy-lifestyle advice. Read more about his opinion on antibiotics at Choosing Wisely.

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