Overuse of Antibiotics

Antibiotics are important medications; it would be difficult to overstate the benefits in treating bacterial infections, preventing the spread of disease and reducing serious complications of disease.

But some antibiotics that used to be standard treatments for bacterial infections are now less effective or don’t work at all. Bacteria are able to undergo mutation to develop resistance to drugs and then pass this resistance on to future generations of bacteria. When an antibiotic no longer has an effect on a certain strain of bacteria, those bacteria are said to be antibiotic-resistant. Antibiotic resistance is one of the world’s most pressing health problems.

The overuse and misuse of antibiotics in human and animal medicine are key factors contributing to antibiotic resistance. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to one-third to one-half of antibiotic use in humans is unnecessary or inappropriate. Approximately 2 million infections from antibiotic-resistant bacteria occur in people in the United States each year, resulting in 23,000 deaths.

What is considered misuse or overuse of antibiotics? Antibiotics are only effective against bacteria, not viruses. Most upper respiratory infections or “colds” are viral, not bacterial, in origin. Prescribing antibiotics is unwarranted. Unnecessary antibiotics in livestock feed also contribute to antibiotic resistance. The EU banned addition of antibiotics to livestock feed for growth enhancement in 2006. The FDA has issued an updated Veterinary Feed Directive to limit the used of important antimicrobials in livestock feed.

I recently received an email from someone who reported their veterinarian had prescribed multiple rounds of antibiotics to treat “crystals” in their dog’s urine. No bacteria were found in the sample and a culture was not performed to see if bacteria were present. The dog had undergone inappropriate antibiotic therapy multiple times. Sick animals should be tested to determine the most effective and prudent antibiotic to treat their specific infection. Whenever possible, a culture and sensitivity test should be performed to determine presence of bacteria and suitable antibiotics for treatment.

One 2011 study, published in the Journal of Small Animal Practice, evaluated a random sample of antibiotics prescriptions in dogs over the course of a year at one veterinary hospital. The scientists found that about 38 percent of all antibiotics prescriptions were given to dogs that showed no evidence of needing an antibiotic—some even had test results that were negative for a bacterial infection.

When antibiotics are prescribed, they kill bad bacteria in the body, but they also kill many of the beneficial bacteria that live in the gut, on the skin, and in the respiratory tract. Beneficial bacteria grow in large numbers that outpace the growth of dangerous bacteria when their habitat is supported with good diet, exercise, and a healthy environment.

Fecal transplants are becoming more popular as a means of replacing beneficial bacteria in the gut for both humans and animals. Oral probiotics may also be helpful, but should contain multiple species of bacteria in large numbers. Fermented raw goat or cow milk can provide a vast array of viable healthy bacteria.

It’s up to everyone to help diminish the overuse of antibiotics in both the human and animal populations. Test before treating, know what is being treated, and treat for the prescribed length of time.