antibiotic resistance everything you need to know

Antibiotic Resistance: Everything You Need to Know

Antibiotic resistance occurs when germs like viruses and bacteria are able to defeat medication designed to kill them. Learn more about antibiotic resistance and its preventions.

by Calvyn Ee

What are Antibiotics?

You may have taken antibiotics before for any number of health reasons, but what exactly are they? Antibiotics are essentially a type of antimicrobial, whose purpose is to kill or inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria that are in your body. Antibiotics exist in a number of forms, from orally ingested pills to even topical creams you apply on your skin. Antibiotics were introduced sometime in the 20th century, marking an important milestone in treating people with bacterial infections. Different antibiotics are prescribed to treat different types of bacteria.

However, misconceptions over the use of antibiotics have caused concerning changes to how effective antibiotics are at treating bacterial infections. For example, most people assume that when taking antibiotics, you need not complete the full course of antibiotics prescribed by the doctor once you have made a full recovery. However, if you are asked to finish the prescription, you must ensure that you do so. The misuse of antibiotics has thus created a growing concern over antibiotic resistance.

What is Antibiotic Resistance?

Antibiotic resistance refers to bacteria – not people or animals – that naturally become resistant to the effects of antibiotics over time.

These antibiotic-resistant bacteria are much harder to treat, as the antibiotics that were able to kill or slow their growth are no longer as effective; in more severe cases, the antibiotics can no longer remove these bacteria from the body. Equally concerning is that there have been very few new antibiotics to replace ones that are ineffective at treating specific bacteria.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria (sometimes called superbugs) are either those that are naturally resistant to some antibiotics or those which have undergone adaptations/mutations that allow them to become immune to the effects of antibiotics; the latter is known as acquired resistance.

Antibiotic resistance is a growing concern as it can lead to various issues, such as slower treatment outcomes and higher medical costs for alternative treatment methods or the use of different antibiotics, with a potential risk of side effects from the use of said antibiotics.

What Causes Antibiotic Resistance?

Antibiotics can help save lives, but their misuse or overuse can inevitably cause antibiotic resistance in bacteria.

Any of the following can cause antibiotic resistance to occur in harmful bacteria:

  • Not abiding by the prescription schedule given by the doctor
  • Not taking prescriptions at the right time
  • Not completing/finishing the prescription
  • Taking the wrong type of antibiotics
  • Taking antibiotics when you don’t need to (such as to cure viral conditions, instead of bacterial conditions)
  • Misdiagnosis due to insufficient diagnostic evidence on a particular infection/complication (in fact, 50 per cent of global antibiotic prescriptions are incorrect)

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that approximately one-third of antibiotic use in people is not actually needed, nor is it appropriate to the person’s healthcare needs.

The presence of antibiotics in the body can force bacteria to adapt or be eliminated from the body. Their DNA may provide avenues to create specific proteins and lead to resistance mechanisms being formed. When multiple resistance mechanisms form, it can lead to increasing antibiotic resistance.

Some examples of resistance mechanisms include:

  • Making changes to the bacterial membrane, preventing the antibiotics from reaching its vital components
  • Making specific changes such that the antibiotics cannot target and eliminate the bacteria
  • Producing enzymes that can break down antibiotics

Antibiotics also end up killing beneficial bacteria that inhabit our body, such as bacteria in the stomach that help with digestion. When this occurs, it gives the harmful bacteria an advantage to multiply its numbers even further. Worrying still is that antibiotic-resistant bacteria can “share” their resistance mechanisms with other bacteria that have not been exposed to antibiotics.

Equally concerning is that antibiotic-resistant bacteria can still spread to others. Within healthcare settings, such as hospitals, there are healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) where bacteria can enter another person’s body during surgical procedures, from bedrails or hands of healthcare professionals, as well as during patient transfers to different medical wings or wards. Within the community, bacteria can spread from communal activities, such as picnics or social events, and even during a person’s travels to other places.

Complications of Antibiotic Resistance

complications of antibiotics resistance

There has only been one new antibiotic development in the last 30 years, making antibiotic resistance that much more difficult to overcome. The long-term complications that antibiotic resistance causes include:

  • Longer illness period
  • Longer recovery period
  • Frequent hospitalisation
  • Significant increase in healthcare costs for more expensive treatments
  • Use of different antibiotics that may cause different side effects
  • Higher risk of transmitting antibiotic-resistant bacteria to others

It can be difficult to identify antibiotic resistance, as they generally cause the same clinical symptoms as antibiotic-sensitive infections. If symptoms persist for an unusually long time, despite being treated with antibiotics that target specific bacterial infections, doctors may suspect the possibility of antibiotic resistance and lab/diagnostic tests may be needed to confirm this hypothesis.

Risk Factors of Antibiotic Resistance

You may be at higher risk of developing antibiotic resistance if you have any of the following risk factors:

  • You have a weakened immune system due to an illness/infection (i.e., cancer)
  • You have other health-related complications/conditions
  • You have AIDS
  • You are an elderly person
  • You frequently use antibiotics for purposes other than what is prescribed/recommended

Note that antibiotic resistance can still affect anyone at any stage.

How to Prevent Antibiotic Resistance

Given how difficult it can be to treat conditions caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria, it is a crucial priority for each and every person to play their part in preventing antibiotic resistance in their local setting. Prevention starts with antibiotic stewardship at every level of society and requires stringent guidelines on the correct use of antibiotics, among other things.

Maintain Personal Hygiene

washing hands

The simplest way to keep yourself safe would be to actively maintain your personal hygiene at all times. This can be as simple as washing your hands before and after meals. Germs and bacteria can get onto your hands from various activities, including handling meats that might have traces of faeces on them or touching surfaces that have germs or bacteria on them. With how easy it can be to spread these germs and bacteria to others, handwashing with soap is your first line of defense before the antibiotic-resistant bacteria get into your body.

Using soap while washing hands helps to remove any bacteria, thanks to surfactants in soap as well as antibacterial components that may have been added. When lathering or scrubbing your hands, the friction generated is able to remove whatever else might be on your hands.

Hygiene is not just relegated to washing your hands and drying them thoroughly. Ensure that you keep up with a consistent hygiene cycle, including taking baths or showers. Hand sanitisers are a good alternative if you do not have access to any soap, but note that it is not 100 per cent effective at removing germs and bacteria from your hands, or when your hands are visibly dirty.

Take Care of Your Health

taking care of our health

Taking care of your physical health is also key to preventing antibiotic resistance from causing undue harm to yourself. Keep an eye out for any changes to your health, no matter how minor it may seem, and notify your doctor immediately. Prompt medical attention can make a difference in protecting you from further harm caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The same principles apply if you are travelling for work or pleasure.

  • Be aware of health alerts in areas that you will be visiting
  • Know which vaccines you will need to get
  • Identify eateries that provide safe food and drink
  • Have a backup plan
  • Have medical insurance for your travels
  • Maintain physical activity to keep yourself fit and in good health
  • Know your allergies and how to deal with an unprecedented allergy episode

If you have pets at home, you should also be mindful of your pets’ health. Ensure you and your pet’s hygiene and health are protected; consult your veterinarian for steps you can take to protect your pet from antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Even pets are also vulnerable to such infections if not adequately cared for.

Get Vaccinated

get vaccinated

Vaccines protect you and your loved ones from a wide range of infections and/or diseases, especially highly infectious ones. Vaccines contain traces of a dead or weakened form of a bacterial infection, which allows the body to know what to target and eliminate to keep you safe from any negative effects. The long-term protection they grant gives people much-needed peace of mind.

Of course, you cannot simply get vaccinated for nearly every single type of infection. For example, children in Malaysia are normally vaccinated according to a fixed vaccination schedule to protect them from specific types of dangerous bacterial infections. Some vaccinations may be needed if you are travelling to a specific area or region where you are at risk of a particular bacterial infection.

Antibiotic Awareness

antibiotic awareness

Given how there is still a lot of misunderstanding of how antibiotics should be used, greater awareness needs to be raised in order to help counter antibiotic resistance. Wrong assumptions that antibiotics can cure everything – including viral infections, which they cannot actually treat – only exacerbate the growing antibiotic resistance problem. The general public must be more aware of how misusing or overusing antibiotics is harmful to their long-term health.

Important things to keep in mind include:

  • Only use antibiotics prescribed by a licensed medical professional
  • Do not consume other antibiotics for whatever reason
  • Do not use any leftover/expired antibiotics, even if they are still sealed
  • Know when to take antibiotics, and when to rely on other medications

Prevent STDs

preventing STDsGonorrhoea is a common sexually transmitted disease (STD), but one that has become a major healthcare concern owing to its antibiotic resistance that has developed over time. Specifically, this refers to Neisseria gonorrhoeae or N. gonorrhoea. Currently, N. gonorrhoea is highly resistant to so many treatment options, with the emergency option available being a type of drug called cephalosporins. The significant resistance of this bacteria has caused huge implications in treating gonorrhoea.

Owing to this, avoiding sex – or mitigating risks associated with STDs – is to best protect yourself and your partner from the risk of STDs and potential antibiotic resistance in N. gonorrhoea. Protective measures include practising safe sex, such as using condoms during sex. If you have multiple partners, it would be recommended that you limit sexual activity to only one partner. Early, and regular, screenings can also provide assurance over time on your sexual (and overall) health.

Food Safety

washing fruits and vegetablesFoodborne infections caused by antimicrobial-resistant bacteria can cause symptoms that could possibly be life-threatening. Harmful bacteria can spread to other people through direct contact with meat or other animal products that are contaminated. These bacteria can cause food poisoning, in which severe cases can cause a myriad of complications such as vomiting, diarrhoea and high fever.

Keeping yourself and your loved ones safe from foodborne infections requires four simple steps:

  • Clean your hands and all kitchen utensils
  • Separate raw food from other types of food
  • Cook foods (especially meats) at a safe temperature
  • Chill leftovers and other foods promptly
  • Apply these steps when feeding your pets
About the Writer
Calvyn Ee
Calvyn is an aspiring author, poet and storyteller. He spends his time reading, gaming and building stories with his action figure photography.
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