There’s no question that some illnesses require antibiotics to cure certain more serious types of bacterial infections, but their overuse has become detrimental to people’s health. The most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) show that over 266 million antibiotic prescriptions are given to patients annually on an outpatient basis (this doesn’t include hospitalized patients), which translates to about 838 prescriptions written for every 1,000 people. According to the CDC, “At least 30 percent of antibiotics prescribed in the outpatient setting are unnecessary, meaning that no antibiotic was needed at all.” So about one in every three people who were prescribed antibiotics didn’t actually need them.
In addition, the CDC states that approximately 50 percent of antibiotics are inappropriately prescribed, meaning that either the wrong dosage, the wrong period of usage, or the wrong drug—such as powerful broad-spectrum drugs rather than targeted medications—is given to patients. Inappropriately and overly prescribed antibiotics contribute to antibiotic resistance, which is when bacterial “bugs” survive antibiotic treatment, leading doctors to prescribe more potent antibiotics.
This vicious cycle has led to the modern-world problem of “superbugs”, which infect about 2 million Americans annually and lead to death in approximately 162,000 of these patients, according to Washington University School of Medicine researchers; worldwide, the number of deaths increases to 700,000. The number of US deaths is significantly up from a long-held 2010 estimate of 23,000.
The upshot is that the more antibiotics you take, the more you increase your chances of either developing an infection that is resistant to antibiotics or these same medications may no longer effectively treat bacterial infections in your system.
Inappropriate reasons for prescribing antibiotics—and cause for you to either question or say “No thanks” to your doctor—are when you have:
- a cough
- the flu
- a head cold
- viral respiratory infections
- sore throats
- most ear infections
These illnesses and others are most often caused by viruses, which are not curable through antibiotics. However, if your symptoms persist, you should see a doctor, but if s/he wants to prescribe an antibiotic, make sure to confirm the infection is bacterial and not viral, and discuss the possibility of getting a targeted medication rather than a broad-spectrum one. The age-old wisdom for getting over viruses is still the best: rest, drink plenty of liquids (bone broth is highly recommended!), and wash your hands often, which will also help to prevent the spread of the virus to others in your household.
Two other causes of antibiotic resistance are hospital-borne infections and livestock raised with antibiotics. The only way to avoid meat-related antibiotic build-up in your body is to consume grass-fed organic meats and dairy products; these animals are given no antibiotics or growth hormones and are healthier than animals raised on factory farms.
Another reason it’s important to limit your use of antibiotics is the fact that they destroy critical gut bacteria. Medications don’t discriminate between the bacteria that’s causing your illness and bacteria that make up your gut microbiome. With an imbalance or a poor diversity of gut flora, your immune system is weakened and you become more prone to future illnesses.
Taking the right probiotic to restore your microbiota is important both during and after any course of medication. Talk to your functional medicine doctor about how to take probiotics while taking antibiotics—they must be taken far enough apart so the drug doesn’t kill off the live bacteria in the probiotic. Once your course of medication is over, eating fermented foods will also help to restore gut bacteria.