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Explainer: What you can do to fight antibiotic resistance

Here’s a list of tips that leading health agencies recommend to help antibiotics remain effective longer

People with a cough and fever likely have a viral infection. Antibiotics do not kill viruses, so people with these infections should find other ways to help their bodies heal. 

DoraZett /iStockphoto

Antibiotics are wonder drugs. They can cure infections that used to commonly kill people. In recent years, however, many of the bacteria that these medicines used to wipe out are finding ways to survive. That means potentially killer infections are cropping up more often. There are still a few medicines that seem to quash resistant germs. The number of drugs in this category, however, has been falling. Doctors tend to avoid using these drugs — which they call the “last line of defense” — until they find that other drugs aren’t working. Meanwhile, biologists and engineers are working to develop new antibiotic treatments.

But in this crusade to fight antibiotic resistance, everyone has a role to play. Here are some tips on what you can do:

  • Use antibiotics wisely. Don’t expect the doctor to prescribe antibiotics every time you get a cough or fever. Viruses cause many of these, and antibiotics don’t kill viruses. Also keep in mind that even for some infections caused by bacteria, antibiotics aren’t needed. You will often get better just as quickly without taking these medicines. Be patient, though — some coughs can take three to four weeks to clear.
  • Learn how to deal with viral infections. Don’t pressure your doctor for antibiotics if it appears that you have a viral infection, with a cough, fever and chills. Instead, get plenty of rest and drink fluids as your immune system tackles the infection. Over-the-counter medications might help relieve symptoms as your body fights off the infection.
  • Take antibiotics exactly as prescribed. Follow the labeled instructions precisely. And even as you start to feel better, continue taking the rest of this medicine. Some infections aren’t truly gone when you start to feel better. If you don’t finish the last of your medicine, you allow some still-lingering germs to develop resistance. Now, if you spread them by sneezing, coughing or touching a surface with germy hands, antibiotics may not help the next person who becomes infected (and it could be a friend or family member).
  • Never take antibiotics that were prescribed for someone else. That medicine may not be right for your illness. Taking the wrong medicine may delay your recovery and allow bacteria to multiply — perhaps developing resistance along the way.
  • Never take antibiotics without a prescription. In many countries, a prescription is not needed to get these medicines. You are unlikely to know which, if any, will help your particular infection. And taking antibiotics when you don’t need them contributes to the development of resistance.
  • Stay at home when you’re sick. Prevent the spread of your germs by avoiding contact with others, by washing your hands frequently and by getting the rest that your body needs to heal.

Power Words

antibiotic  A germ-killing substance prescribed as a medicine (or sometimes as a feed additive to promote the growth of livestock). It does not work against viruses.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC  An agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, CDC is charged with protecting public health and safety by working to control and prevent disease, injury and disabilities. It does this by investigating disease outbreaks, tracking exposures by Americans to infections and toxic chemicals, and regularly surveying diet and other habits among a representative cross-section of all Americans.

germ    Any one-celled microorganism, such as a bacterium, fungal species or virus particle. Some germs cause disease. Others can promote the health of higher-order organisms, including birds and mammals. The health effects of most germs, however, remain unknown.

infection  A disease that can be transmitted between organisms.

resistance    (as in drug resistance) The reduction in the effectiveness of a drug to cure a disease, usually a microbial infection. (as in disease resistance) The ability of an organism to fight off disease.

virus   iny infectious particles consisting of RNA or DNA surrounded by protein. Viruses can reproduce only by injecting their genetic material into the cells of living creatures. Although scientists frequently refer to viruses as live or dead, in fact no virus is truly alive. It doesn’t eat like animals do, or make its own food the way plants do. It must hijack the cellular machinery of a living cell in order to survive.

World Health Organization  An agency of the United Nations, established in 1948, to promote health and to control communicable diseases. It is based in Geneva, Switzerland. The United Nations relies on the WHO for providing international leadership on global health matters. This organization also helps shape the research agenda for health issues and sets standards for pollutants and other things that could pose a risk to health. WHO also regularly reviews data to set policies for maintaining health and a healthy environment.

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