The dangerous overuse of antibiotics and creation of superbugs

For nearly the past month, my family and I have been battling a doozy of an upper respiratory infection, also known as a cold or the flu. It started with my daughter and quickly spread to my son and husband and finally to me all within about a week’s time. The coughing, the phlegm, the runny nose, the aches, the fever, the gastrointestinal issues – we shared it all. Isn’t family great?!

Throughout the several weeks of what was pretty much hell for me, all I wanted was something that would make it all better – a magic pill, an elixir, anything. Yet as I had suspected, when I saw the doctor (both for myself and later for my son), she confirmed that it was a viral infection not a bacterial infection, which means antibiotics won’t do a darn thing to make it better. (More about virus vs. bacteria.) With viral infections, you just need to wait out the illness (usually one to three weeks) and do whatever you can to make the symptoms more bearable – drink lots of liquids, get lots of rest, etc. I was disappointed there was no quick fix (it’s seriously hard to care for your sick family when you feel like the walking dead yourself), but I accepted it and focused on doing what I could naturally to help us all feel better.

It seems not everyone is as accepting of a viral diagnosis as I was. According to the blog Antibiotic Misuse and Resistance, “Seven out of ten Americans receive antibiotics when they seek treatment for a common cold!” because the patient “pressures the doctor into prescribing an antibiotic to get a quick fix to his/her illness.” The problem with this, of course, is that “antibiotics won’t cure a cold because colds are caused by viruses, not bacteria.”

The overuse of antibiotics is a real problem. Jane Collingwood from Psych Central notes in The Common Cold: Facts and Myths, “antibiotics usually do not help a cold. Antibiotics work against bacteria, while most colds are viral.The overprescription of unwarranted antibiotics has caused our bodies to develop antibiotic-resistant bacteria. When you really do have a bacterial infection, antibiotics may not be able to treat it. They may actually make colds worse by killing the ‘friendly’ bacteria and creating an environment more hospitable to the virus.”

If that doesn’t convince you and you are still wondering why you can’t take an antibiotic “just in case,” here’s why.

There are big problems with the cavalier use of antibiotics. When bacteria are exposed to an antibiotic, while many are killed, subsequent generations of others may develop characteristics that allow them to resist being killed. While the antibiotic kills off the weakest bacteria, antibiotic resistance allows the stronger, resistant bacteria to continue multiplying. The eventual result can be “superbugs,” which are very hard to kill and may only succumb to extremely powerful antibiotics. Such antibiotics pose a greater risk of significant side effects that may require hospitalization and are much more costly. Some superbugs go on to cause devastating and even fatal infections that are incurable with current antibiotics.

Another tip to remember that’s helpful in preventing superbugs is that if you are prescribed an antibiotic for a bacterial infection, be sure to take the full course of it as directed. “Don’t stop the medicine just because you begin to feel better. Not taking the entire prescription may allow resistant bacteria to thrive and not be completely killed off.”

Nurse Barb sums it all up nicely when she says, “the next time you go to see your health care provider and they tell you that you don’t need an antibiotic, be grateful, this could ultimately save your life in years to come.”

Some of the things I did for myself and my family that helped us deal with our virus were:

  • Cut out all dairy products (to reduce mucus) and greatly reduce sugar and flour consumption
  • Drink a lot of fluids, especially hot tea with honey (honey has been proven effective in treating coughs, especially in children though should never be given to children under 1 year old)
  • Use a vaporizer or humidifier at night
  • Eat a lot of homemade chicken noodle (or rice) soup
  • Rest as much as possible
  • Spend time in the steamy bathroom to help break up phlegm
  • Normally I prefer using cloth handkerchiefs (better for the environment), but I finally broke down and started using disposable tissues so we wouldn’t reinfect each other with dirty hankies lying around the house
  • Use a neti pot to clean out the sinuses (BlogNosh has a humorous tutorial on how to use a neti pot)
  • Frequently wash hands with regular soap (not antibacterial) and water
  • Use herbal and homeopathic remedies

More tips can be found at the Crunchy Bunch for treating colds naturally and Kelly the Kitchen Kop has a list of Home Remedies for a Cold & Ear Ache / How to Avoid Colds, Flu, Ear Infections & Antibiotics.

Disclaimer: Please note that I am not a doctor, nor am I giving medical advice here. If you or your child is sick, I recommend visiting your doctor to get the correct diagnosis and then using your best judgment.

Cross-posted on BlogHer

27 thoughts on “The dangerous overuse of antibiotics and creation of superbugs”

  1. I stopped taking any medicines for colds/respiratory infections. They always made me feel worse in some way. Your list is a great one… those are the things that make me feel the best!

  2. I read recently that the biggest threat/contributor to antibiotic over-use is the incredible amounts of antibiotics given to livestock that we later ingest. (We = omnivores). Is over-prescription really a problem when the food we eat is apparently swamped with the stuff? And how do we change that?

  3. My husband swears by most of the things on your list (we haven’t tried a neti pot yet.) His biggest thing is to try not yo touch your eyes and nose with your hands when you’re sick because you can reinfect yourself. And if you do need to say to blow your nose, washin your hands right away afterwards. He learned that when he worked at a hospital.

  4. Amy, thanks for the link!

    Jane, the way to change that is by not buying the crappy meats at the store anymore, but finding a good farm nearby that has animals on pasture and doesn’t given them things like antibiotics, animal by-products, soy feed, hormones, etc. To find a farm, check or ask members at your local WAPF chapter. (I’d give you the link for those but it may throw this comment into the spam folder, that happens at my site a lot.)

  5. My 2 year old (youngest of 3) has never had antibiotics in spite of several ear infections, eye infections, colds, etc. We use a chiropractor (who treats kids free until age 6!!) and lots of fluids (aka nursing). My first child was overdosed with antibiotics until I got a clue and switched docs. She ended up with such a leaky gut she had to be gluten free (as well as several other foods) for a year and a half to heal.
    So thumbs down on antibiotics as a cure-all. However, when I returned from Mexico a few years ago and had gut wrenching diarreah for two weeks you can bet I was thankful for them!! All things in moderation….

  6. This is why we rarely see a doctor, to avoid unnecessary antibiotics. We also skip the antibacterial soaps and cleaners. Killing 99% of bacteria means the remaining 1% of superbugs have no competition for growing.

  7. Another idea instead of regular hankies or kleenex are wash cloths. This winter I invested in a few inexpensive stacks of 100% cotton wash clothes. We use them to blow noses once (or twice) depending on how sick we are and toss them in a basket on the washing machine. If we are actually sick sick versus a light nose run, I do wash them in hot water with baking soda and vinegar (similar to cloth diapers). The rest of the time I just wash them with our dish towels.

  8. Can you use a neti pot for allergies? Sometimes my sinuses are so congested I think if I used a net pot the water would never come out!!! Tis the season for allergies, and I’m thinking of picking one up. Any thoughts? Thanks!!!

  9. I don’t have any good ideas, and the idea of a neti pot sort of freaks me out. But I will say that I am totally with you on the antibiotics. We avoid them whenever possible, and we also avoid antibacterial soaps and cleaners.

    What I find alarming is that most antibiotics today are used on livestock. I fear that contributes to the creation of superbugs, and so our personal use or not may make little difference. This convinced me to change a lot of my food choices, I hope that by eating more drug-free animal products I am helping to alleviate the problem.

  10. It just blows me away that we are still trying to educate people about the overprescription and misuse of antibiotics and antibacterials. My dad was a microbiology student was I was growing up in the 70’s. He drummed into our heads that you don’t take antibiotics for a cold or flu and that if a doctor wants to prescribe them, she/he needs to take a culture FIRST to make sure what you have is actually bacterial.

    Okay, the 70’s… that was over 30 years ago, and things have only gotten worse. Manufacturers put Triclosan in everything nowadays.

    Thank you for this post, Amy. I hope the people who need to see it will.

  11. You don’t have to worry too much about “reinfecting” youself or “passing the infection back and forth” as the human body rarely becomes infected with the same virus twice. Once one is exposed to a virus, the bady produces antibodies to it and “remembers” that virus. When the body is exposed to that particular virus again, the body “remembers” it and immediately produces antibodies to that virus before infection can occur. This is same priciple behind vaccinations.

  12. Thank you!!!

    I have some family members that go to a doctor that gives antibiotics and steroids for everything! Call him and tell him you have a cold and you get antibiotics and steroids… flu- antibiotics and steroids.

    Drives me nuts! I have thought about asking my doctor if he has another CDC poster like he has on the wall talking about why antibiotics are only for bacterial infections. So glad my doctor is very careful with them. Even more so with me as I have a family history of allergic reactions to antibiotics.

  13. I’ve always heard it takes a whole week to get over a cold if you don’t take any medication – but only seven days if you do!

    Actually, though, a lot of the little things you recommend (less dairy, more fluids) really do help. The “power of small” does make a difference.


  14. i grew up being prescribed antibiotics for EVERYTHING. even to treat my horrible acne… let’s not even go into what it did to my immune system.

    our family doctor’s practice has signs up in every exam room that explain why they will not prescribe antibiotics unless you actually need them. i’m so thankful for that!! my son has been on antibiotics twice in his 4 years (both times for sinus infections). by the time i was the same age, i had spent most of every winter on multiple doses of antibiotics. i’d like to think that in the long run, J will be healthier for it!

  15. Also zinc. When Erin was in the NICU at the first sign of a cold I’d take zinc + C powder (didn’t come as zinc alone) and by the next day all was well again. I didn’t get properly sick the whole time she was in hospital and this was the year with the bumper flu season AND I was traveling at least twice a day on public transport. I also swear by horseradish and garlic for things like head colds and sinus infections.

    We rarely take antibiotics, I prefer to use natural remedies to fight off minor illnesses.

  16. I hate using any drugs especially antibiotics as they ruin your immune system. We prefer using herbal stuff as teas and some candies to treat all the diseases we have in the family.

  17. i hate using antibiotics whenever i have colds. Its because it is hard for me to cure my colds if i take antibiotics. So i just drink plenty of orange juice.

  18. Thanks a lot, i should make my mother in law read this – poor woman tries to stuff her grown up kids with antibiotics everytime they get a runny nose….

  19. I swithed to healthy diet, no smoking or aclohol and meat. I don’t really need any meds since then and I forgot about migraines. You only need to find the strength to change your life.

  20. Good article and a good warning. Another bad thing about antibiotics is that the bacteria can become resistant to that drug if you take it in the wrong way. I prefer hot tea, honey, lemon and oragnges whenever I catch cold and it works.

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