Image Courtesy of The Economist – “The Spread of Superbugs”“The growth of antibiotic-resistant pathogens means that in ever more cases, standard treatments no longer work, infections are harder or impossible to control, the risk of spreading infections to others is increased, and illnesses and hospital stays are prolonged.”
Antibiotic resistance is one of the most significant public health crises this planet faces today. Every year, the human species grows increasingly resistant to antibiotic treatment, largely due to the overuse or improper application of these medications. As a primary care doctor, I am frequently asked to prescribe antibiotics for illnesses that are not caused by bacterial pathogens.
The implications of this kind of abuse of antibiotics are so extreme that recently the CDC created its own FAQ homepage dedicated to informing and educating the public on antibiotic resistance, calling this issue “one of the world’s most pressing public health problems.”
So today I would like address some of the issues surrounding antibiotics and antibiotic resistance and also explain how you, as a savvy patient, can naturally boost your body’s immunity to bacterial infections so you’ll have less need for antibiotics.
Q: What is antibiotic resistance and how can it happen to me?
A: Antibiotic resistance occurs when harmful bacteria and other microbes learn how to work around or sabotage antibiotic medications used by doctors, veterinarians and agricultural producers to kill them off (examples: Amoxicillin, Cipro and Zithromax). Bacteria are clever and can “learn”: the more often and longer harmful bacteria “see” antibiotics, the better chance they have to transform themselves in ways that they become resistant. This is happening more and more, principally from the improper use of such medications.
Antibiotics are ineffective in treating illnesses caused by viruses such as the common cold, the flu, and actually the majority of common coughs and other common illnesses like sore throats. Yet because members of the general public do not understand this fundamental difference, these antibiotic drugs are often prescribed for problems not associated with bacterial infections – causing long-term resistance to treatment on part of the bad bacteria while the good bacteria in our bodies gets killed off unnecessarily. (In future blogs we’ll talk more about the importance of “good” bacteria in our guts.)
Q: Why should I care about antibiotic resistance?
A: Progressive resistance by bacteria to treatment with antibiotics is a major public health crisis happening RIGHT NOW! Scientists find that most bacteria have become resistant to antibiotic treatment due to non-discretionary use of such treatments. Over time, this has made it increasingly more difficult to properly treat serious illnesses caused by bacteria. While this is most devastating to weak or immune-compromised individuals, everybody’s health is at risk due to this resistance, so more discretion needs to be used to avoid escalation of this public health problem.
Q: How might I be inadvertently causing resistance in my body?
A: One common dangerous mistake is when you only take part of a prescription of antibiotics you DO need before your infection is fully treated. You’ll kill the susceptible bacteria, and the resistant ones left behind will grow wild. Always complete the course of treatment.
Side effects? Call your doc, don’t just stop early!
Q: How can I naturally boost my immunity to bacterial infections?
A: It’s easy! You can start with these simple steps:
1) Try taking an over-the-counter probiotic supplement once per day. “VSL3” is one probiotic that I particularly like, however there is a wide variety of probiotic products available at grocery stores and pharmacies which will all be helpful in aiding your immune system.
2) Taking 10 mgs of a zinc supplement daily has also been shown to be quite useful in preparing your body for a bacterial attack – it has beneficial effects on our immune cells, particularly CD3 and CD4 cells which help our bodies fight off infections. (Disclaimer: DO NOT TAKE ZINC IF YOU HAVE KIDNEY PROBLEMS!) If you prefer to get your nutrients from foods, here is a list of high-zinc foods:
3) Take 100-200 mg of Ginseng per day. Ginseng has been used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine for effective immune enhancement and is another fabulous (and natural!) way to limit your need for antibiotic treatment.
4) WASH YOUR HANDS! Only plain soap and warm water are necessary. Wash your hands thoroughly for 30 seconds in the sink after potentially coming in contact with bacteria. Anti-bacterial soap is not required to make this effective, in fact the FDA has recently warned that these soaps may be posing an additional problem for bacterial resistance to antibiotics.
5) Most importantly: Talk to your primary care doctor when you are sick and work with her/him cooperatively on the best treatment. Many illnesses can be treated without antibiotic medications – and these drugs should not be used thinking they are a “fool-proof” method for becoming well every time you’re feeling under the weather.
Stay well and here’s to hoping you’ve learned something new!