When they’re actually used correctly, antibiotics can do an amazing job of clearing up the most lethal bacterial infections. And if you’re sick enough to be hospitalized for an infectious illness like pneumonia, those antibiotics might even save your life.
But like most drugs today, antibiotics are overused and over- prescribed—despite repeated pleas from infectious disease experts warning otherwise. Their crystal clear usage guidelines are often ignored by busy doctors eager to appease the many patients who show up demanding a quick fix for their colds and sore throats.
One of the most serious problems with antibiotic overuse is that too many strains of bacteria are becoming resistant to the drugs. Infectious bacteria constantly multiply. All it takes are a few strong bacteria to actually defeat the antibiotic. And the constant fight against antibiotics teaches the bacteria to grow even stronger, making them much harder to kill. This not only creates the need for more antibiotics, but it can also be life-threatening if the right antibiotic isn’t found in time.
The huge problem with all of this is that most common upper respiratory tract infections and sore throats are caused by viruses ––not by bacteria. Antibiotics are useless in these cases––and they still promote resistant bacteria, jeopardizing your health without any clear benefit.
Another main concern with antibiotics is that they kill healthy gut bacteria, which you need in order to keep your immune system healthy. The immune system not only protects against infections, but it also combats common degenerative diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and cancer.
We have no idea yet what the overuse of antibiotics could mean over a period of decades, but we’re getting some hints that the news isn’t good. Here are 10 facts you must know and take into consideration the next time your doctor hands you a prescription:
1) Heavy use may cause breast cancer
One study shows that over a 17-year period, women who took antibiotics for over 500 days or who had over 17 prescriptions had double the risk of developing breast cancer. That’s a 100 percent increase! One expert stated, “It’s as strong a risk factor as we have.”
2) They destroy your immune system
Three quarters of your immune system is located in your gut, where it protects against foreign toxic substances in your food. A healthy balance of gut material is essential to normal immune system functioning. But if you take too many antibiotics too often this natural function is disturbed. In addition to contributing to the risk for chronic degenerative diseases,Â overuse can be responsible for an increase in risk of both lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, where the immune system becomes confused and attacks one or more tissue types or organs in the body.
3) Antibiotics cause diarrhea
You’ve probably read the warning label and maybe you’ve even experienced this side effect before. Antibiotics wreak havoc on your stomach. Patients on antibiotics develop diarrhea because the normal balance between good bacteria and bad bacteria in the gut is disturbed. To avoid diarrhea, I recommend a probiotic supplement (which is healthy bacteria) three times a day while taking an antibiotic.
4) They cause colon disease
As I mentioned above, antibiotics kill good bacteria. And they can also cause a severe inflammatory disease of the colon called C. Diff colitis. C. Diff is short for clostridium difficile, a resident gut bacteria that causes trouble when not held in check by normal amounts of good bacteria. This results in severe diarrheal illness and can even lead to colon surgery––or in rare cases, death.
5) Overuse promotes the growth of hard-to-treat resistant bacteria
Overusing antibiotics will eventually lead to bacteria being resistant to the drug and eventually not working at all. The result can be anything from a urinary tract infection that doesn’t go away to death from a so-called “superbug” resistant to all antibiotics. These superbugs are a worry more for the elderly and chronically ill, whose immune systems are worn out.
6) They’re in milk and meat
Over half of all antibiotics in this country are pumped into cattle, pigs, sheep, chicken, and milking cows to promote faster growth and protect them against infection. Animals pick up infections from the filthy, crowded, inhumane factory farms that they’re raised in. All of these antibiotics encourage more resistant bacteria strains, which are then passed down to human beings via the food itself. But they’re also being passed along in contaminated air and water.
7) They don’t work on viruses
Bacteria are living organisms that respond to antibiotics whereas viruses are little protein machines that need a living cell in order to reproduce and multiply. The vast majority of colds and sore throats are viral so antibiotics do not work. And yet so many doctors today are so quick to hand out a script for a runny nose or a scratchy throat.
8) Drug companies are reluctant to develop new ones on their own
There’s a love affair between drug companies and the so-called lifestyle drugs—the ones you “must” take for the rest of your life for problems like heart disease, diabetes, heartburn, or arthritis. And why not? These drugs make Big Pharma mountains of money because people “need” to be on them continuously. Antibiotics, on the other hand, are needed less often by fewer people. As a result, there’s not a real big incentive to develop an antibiotic for any potential “superbug.”
Most of the research in this area is not coming from drug companies, but from academia and other publicly funded sources. This is the result of legislation passed back in the 1980s that allows drug companies to take research funded by the taxpayer (that’s you and me) to develop drugs for their own profit. What’s wrong with this picture?
9) They’re overused on children
Ear infections are among the most common reasons children are given antibiotics in our country. They’re prescribed in over 96 percent of these cases––even though their use actually causes ear infections to occur more often. This is especially counterproductive considering the fact that almost all ear infections will clear up on their own.
But that’s not the only problem ––children who take antibiotics in their first six months are more likely to get allergies by the age of seven. Yet parents still demand them for their children and U.S. doctors are always willing to oblige.
10) Weird and troubling side effects
Certain antibiotics, such as Bactrim and Septra, can cause fatal skin rashes called Steven Johnson Syndrome. Victims with this disease can end up in burn units because their skin peels right off their bodies. Both erithromycin and clarithromycin (Biaxin) increase the risk of a potentially fatal fast heart rhythm called Torsades de Pointes. These same drugs can also cause temporary deafness.
Dr. Alan Inglis
Dr. Inglis works closely with his patients to help them take charge of their health and well-being without resorting to expensive drugs and dangerous surgeries.
He is currently the director of Integrated Health Solutions, and is on the board of NOAH - a wellness center in Great Barrington, MA.