ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. – The Army Public Health Center is promoting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s annual U.S. Antibiotic Awareness Week, November 18-24.
The CDC slogan is “BE ANTIBIOTICS AWARE. SMART USE. BEST CARE.” The annual campaign is to increase awareness of the essential need for appropriate antibiotic use, what constitutes antibiotic misuse, and antibiotic side-effects.
Why the concern?
Many common infections are becoming harder and sometimes impossible to treat as routine antibiotics become less effective. When antibiotics become less effective, people are then at risk of severe illness or even death from infections that have previously been curable, such as tuberculosis, pneumonia and gonorrhea. The impacts can mean longer hospital stays, increased medical costs and more deaths, such as those due to sepsis.
Most people have taken antibiotics at some point in their lives. Commonly prescribed antibiotics include penicillins, cephalosporins and tetracyclines. These are used to treat bacterial infections such as strep throat, urinary tract infections, “pink eye” (conjunctivitis) and sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia, syphilis and gonorrhea.
Antibiotics are made to kill bacterial infections or prevent bacteria from reproducing, thus getting rid of infections and their symptoms. But they are not a cure for every type of infection. Importantly, antibiotics do NOT work on viruses such as those that cause colds, flu, COVID-19 or herpes.
“Antibiotics have effectively treated mild to severe illness and saved countless lives,” says Maj. Christine Basca, Army Public Health Nurse Division staff officer at the U.S. Army Public Health Center. “But many of the antibiotic drugs that we have relied on for many years to cure common illnesses will become—or are already becoming—ineffective because of antimicrobial resistance.”
Antibiotic resistance means the bacteria that live in and on our bodies have developed the ability to defeat the antibiotics that are designed to kill them.
The CDC now considers antibiotic resistance as one of the most urgent threats to the public’s health. More than 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections occur in the United States each year, and more than 35,000 people die as a result.
What is causing the problem?
Two primary reasons for antibiotic resistance are—
- Taking antibiotics when not needed or when it is not known if an infection is bacterial or viral. Unfortunately, people sometimes get unneeded antibiotics from a healthcare provider or use a prescription from a friend or family member. This can mean a person is less likely to benefit from the drug’s effectiveness when needed for a future bacterial infection.
- Not finishing the entire treatment duration to completely kill off the bacteria. People will sometimes not take the full prescription once they start feeling better, or they stop if there are unpleasant side effects. As a result, remaining bacteria may survive and reproduce, and an incompletely treated infection may recur.
Respiratory infections, such as cold and flu, are especially frequent reasons why people seek antibiotics from their healthcare providers at this time of year. As these infections are viral, anti-bacterial antibiotics are not effective against them. Their use in treating viral infections is a reason for the growing antibiotic resistance threat.
Gonorrhea is an example of antibiotic resistant threat
The public health crisis caused by STIs has continued to grow for years. CDC estimates that approximately 1.6 million new gonorrhea infections occur annually in the U.S., making it the second most common reportable infectious disease in the nation. Gonorrhea also continues to be a common infection to Army Soldiers.
Though gonorrhea can progress if untreated, the good news is that when diagnosed, gonorrhea infections have been treated effectively with an antibiotic, often a single injection. The bad news is that gonorrhea infections are becoming increasingly resistant to the usual antibiotics that treated it effectively in the past.
Basca and coworkers at the APHC, such as Nikki Jordan, a senior epidemiologist who has studied military STIs, describe gonorrhea as a prime example of a disease that is being impacted by antibiotic resistance. Jordan says that the phenomenon of antibiotic resistance has likely contributed to surging gonorrhea infection rates in the U.S. population; they have almost doubled since 2009.
The CDC has listed gonorrhea in its top severity category of antibiotic-resistant infections. Since emerging resistance remains a concern, gonorrhea patients are strongly encouraged to be reevaluated by their healthcare provider if their symptoms do not resolve within a few days of treatment.
What can you do?
The CDC and Army public health experts especially want you to remember these important facts to help reduce antibiotic resistance and increase the likelihood that antibiotics will be able to save you and your loved ones from bacterial infections in the future:
- Antibiotics can save lives. When you need antibiotics, the benefits outweigh the risks of side effects and antibiotic resistance.
- Antibiotics are only needed for treating certain infections caused by bacteria, but even some bacterial infections get better without antibiotics. Antibiotics aren’t needed for many sinus infections, some ear infections and minor skin infections.
- Antibiotics do NOT treat viruses, like those that cause colds, flu, or COVID-19. An antibiotic will most probably not make you feel better if you have a virus. Upper respiratory infections caused by viruses usually go away in a week or two without treatment. Ask your healthcare professional about the best way to feel better while your body fights off the virus.
- Antibiotics do not treat fungal diseases; antifungal drugs are required for these.
- Antibiotics will not treat parasitic infections like malaria, Giardia diarrhea, or pinworms.
- When antibiotics aren’t needed, they won’t help you; in fact, the side-effects may harm you. Side effects can range from minor reactions, such as hives or gastrointestinal upset, to very severe health problems such as anaphylactic shock.
- If you do need antibiotics, take them exactly as prescribed. To avoid drug interactions, inform your healthcare provider about any antibiotic allergies you have, as well as other medications you take. Talk with your healthcare provider if you develop any side effects, especially severe diarrhea, which may need to be treated immediately.
Never take leftover antibiotics or any antibiotics prescribed for another person.
Do your best to stay healthy and keep others healthy:
- Wash your hands regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol, especially after using the toilet, before eating, before preparing food, and after handling uncooked meat.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.
- Stay at home when sick.
- Practice safe sex. Talk with your partner, get tested, use condoms and take recommended vaccines, such as the HPV vaccine.
- Ensure you and your family receive recommended vaccinations.
Take unused or expired antibiotics to drug take-back sites, such as pharmacies (including military pharmacies). Throw away antibiotics in household trash ONLY as a last resort. Do NOT flush antibiotics down the toilet or dispose of them down the sink drain.
How antibiotic aware are you? Check your knowledge about antibiotic use with this CDC quiz.
The U.S. Army Public Health Center focuses on promoting healthy people, communities, animals, and workplaces through the prevention of disease, injury, and disability of Soldiers, retirees, family members, veterans, Army civilian employees, and animals through population-based monitoring, investigations, and technical consultations.
NOTE: The mention of any non-federal entity and/or its products is for informational purposes only, and not to be construed or interpreted, in any manner, as federal endorsement of that non-federal entity or its products.