All about antibiotic resistance

Antibiotic resistance is a syndrome where your child's body begins to resist antibiotics because of overuse. Here's all you need to know about it.

By Anasuya Jagan

All about antibiotic resistance


Do you know that doctors tend to prescribe antibiotics for your child even when it is not required, because you insist upon them? This problem is very common in India. Often, what you think of as a quick-fix cure, is really not curing your child’s ear pain or cough. On the other hand, you are contributing to the steadily increasing condition called ‘Antibiotic Resistance’.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (a US government body), from where the inputs for this article have been taken, categorically states:

‘When antibiotics fail to work in common infections that were earlier easily treatable, the consequences are longer-lasting illnesses, more doctor visits or extended hospital stays, and the need for more expensive and toxic medications. Some resistant infections can even cause death.

Children are of particular concern because they have the highest rates of antibiotic use.’

What are antibiotics?

Antibiotics, also known as antimicrobial drugs, are drugs that fight infections caused by bacteria. Bacteria are single-celled organisms usually found all over the inside and outside of our bodies, except in the blood and spinal fluid. Some bacteria are beneficial, while others cause diseases.

The term ‘antibiotic’ originally referred to a natural compound produced by a fungus or another microorganism that kills disease-causing bacteria. Technically, the term ‘antimicrobial agent’ refers to both natural and synthetic compounds. However, many people use the word ‘antibiotic’ to refer to both antibiotic and antimicrobial agents. Although antibiotics have many beneficial effects, their use has contributed to the problem of antibiotic resistance.

What are viruses and why should viral infections not be treated with antibiotics?

Viruses are smaller than bacteria, and cannot survive outside the body’s cells. They cause illnesses by invading healthy cells and reproducing. Antibiotics are ineffective as a treatment against viruses. Do not medicate your child with antibiotics for colds, flu, most coughs and bronchitis, sore throats (except for those resulting from strep throat) and some types of ear infections, which are caused by viruses. Take your doctor’s advice and try out other remedial measures that provide relief.

What is antibiotic resistance?

Antibiotic resistance is the ability of bacteria or other microbes to resist the effects of an antibiotic. This happens when bacteria change in some way that reduces or eliminates the effectiveness of drugs, chemicals, or other agents designed to cure or prevent infections. The bacteria survive and continue to multiply causing more harm.

Why should we be concerned about antibiotic resistance?

Antibiotic resistance has been called one of the world’s most pressing public health problems. Almost every type of bacteria has become stronger and less responsive to antibiotic treatment when it is really needed. These antibiotic-resistant bacteria can quickly spread to family members, schoolmates, and co-workers, threatening the community with a new strain of infectious disease that is more difficult to cure and more expensive to treat.

A common misconception is that a person’s body becomes resistant to specific drugs. However, it is the microbes, and not people, that become resistant to the drugs.

If a microbe becomes resistant to many drugs, treating the infections it causes can become difficult or even impossible.

Why are bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics?

Every time a person takes antibiotics, sensitive bacteria are killed, but resistant germs may be left to grow and multiply. Repeated, prolonged and improper uses of antibiotics are the primary causes for the increase in drug-resistant bacteria. Smart use of antibiotics, rather than widespread use, is the key to controlling the spread of resistance.

How do bacteria become resistant to antibiotics?

Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria change in some way that reduces the effectiveness of the drugs designed to cure or prevent infections. Some bacteria develop the ability to neutralise the antibiotic before it can do harm to them, others can rapidly pump the antibiotic out, and still others can change the antibiotic attack site so that it cannot affect their functioning. Even if just one of these bacteria survives, it can continue to multiply and replace all the bacteria that was destroyed.

In addition, the same bacteria that were earlier susceptible to an antibiotic can acquire resistance through mutation of their genetic material or by acquiring pieces of DNA that code for the resistance properties from other bacteria. The DNA that codes for resistance can be grouped in a single, easily transferable package. This means that a particular type of bacteria can become resistant to many antimicrobial agents at the same time, because of the transfer of one piece of DNA. 

How can I prevent antibiotic-resistant infections?

Use antibiotics only when they are likely to be beneficial. Some useful tips to remember are:

  • Do not save some of your antibiotic to use the next time you fall sick. Discard any leftover medication once you have completed your prescribed course of treatment.
  • Take an antibiotic exactly as your physician tells you. Do not skip doses. Complete the prescribed course of treatment even if you are feeling better. If treatment stops too soon, some bacteria may survive and re-infect.
  • Do not take antibiotics prescribed for someone else. The antibiotic may not be appropriate for your illness. Taking the wrong medicine will delay the correct treatment and allow the bacteriato multiply.
  • For some common ailments, which are not bacterial infections, try out home remedies to obtain relief from symptoms.

Are antibacterial-containing products (soaps, household cleaners, etc.) better at preventing the spread of infection? Does their use add to the problem of resistance?

Antibacterial-containing products have not been proven to prevent the spread of infection any better than products not containing antibacterial chemicals. More studies are needed to see if their use adds to the problem of resistance.

Do probiotics have a role in preventing or treating drug-resistant infections?

Probiotics are defined as microorganisms that when administered in sufficient quantities may improve health. There are a variety of probiotics that have been studied for various health benefits. Their role in preventing drug-resistant infections in humans has not been established, though there is on-going research in this subject. 


Anasuya Jagan is a freelance writer.