The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) names antibiotic resistance as one of the greatest public health challenges of our time. Approximately 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections occur in the United States each year, resulting in more than 35,000 deaths. These infections are often caused by ‘superbugs,’ a term coined for microorganisms that have developed a resistance to commonly used antibiotics, which have been identified in all regions of the world. 

“Antibiotics are medications designed to fight off infections caused by bacteria,” says Jeffrey Cruzan, MD, president of INTEGRIS Medical Group in Oklahoma City. “They do this by either killing the bacteria or making it impossible for it to grow and multiply.”

Almost everyone has been prescribed an antibiotic at some point in his or her life to treat an illness. 

“Bacterial infections are common,” confirms Cruzan. “Most people have heard of strep throat, which requires an antibiotic to kill the bacteria causing the infection. Other common infections that antibiotics are used for are pneumonia, urinary tract infections and skin infections. Antibiotics do not work against many other common infections caused by viruses such as the flu, colds, most sinus infections, sore throats, nor COVID. Fungal infections are not treated with antibiotics either.”

What Causes Antibiotic Resistance?

It’s important to understand when and why antibiotics should be used for treatment. While it’s true that antibiotic resistance occurs naturally over time, the misuse and overuse of antibiotics has contributed to the antibiotic resistance problem. 

“Antibiotic stewardship or the appropriate use of antibiotics is a huge concern,” says Cruzan. “Indiscriminate use of antibiotics leads to antibiotic resistance, meaning that the antibiotic will not be as useful in the treatment moving forward and it may lead to the development of super infections or drug resistant infections, which are much more difficult to treat and may lead to death from what we now know as treatable infections. Antibiotics can kill ‘good’ bacteria, those bacteria that help keep the bad bacteria in check. Removal of these ‘good’ bacteria may result in a super infection as well.”

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Like any medication, the use of antibiotics comes with various side effects. Cruz says mild or minor side effects include rash, nausea, diarrhea and yeast infections. 

“However, some side effects are serious and even deadly,” he says. “An anaphylactic allergic reaction may be life threatening.”

In addition, he says some antibiotics place you at risk for other bacterial infections, such as Clostridioides difficile, often referred to as C. difficile or C. diff. 

“C. difficile diarrhea can be severe, requiring hospitalization and may cause death,” says Cruzan. “Antibiotic-resistant infections may occur as well.”

He also says it’s important to understand that antibiotics should not be used to treat many upper respiratory infections because they are often viral infections. 

“Frequently, patients who get antibiotics for these infections are on the verge of improving and the timing of the antibiotics prescription makes them think they are the cause for improvement—but usually, it is a manner of timing and they were going to get better anyway,” he says. “Also, if you do receive a prescription for antibiotics, take them as prescribed and finish the prescription, as not doing so may lead to resistance. If you have questions, please ask your physician.”

To help combat antibiotic resistance globally, the CDC has formed the Antibiotic Resistance Solutions Initiative to invest in projects throughout the world to help detect, respond, contain and prevent resistant infections.