Taking antibiotics when it’s not necessary is the greatest risk factor for developing bacterial resistance, which occurs when bacteria mutate in a way that reduces the effectiveness of medications designed to cure illness. Bacterial resistance can lead to “superbugs,” or infections that do not respond to antibiotics.

Although Helena has not experienced the “superbugs” you hear about elsewhere around the country, we do see a host of “mighty bugs.” Bacterial “mighty bugs” can lead to higher rates of mortality and increased costs of treatment for people affected. However, by raising the awareness of smart antibiotic use, we can minimize antibiotic resistance and keep our community safe from “superbugs.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), up to 50 percent of antibiotics prescribed to outpatients are either unnecessary or inappropriate. This usually occurs when antibiotics are prescribed for what’s likely a viral infection that will run its course with time and could instead be managed with over-the-counter remedies.

Antibiotic resistance has always been a battle between modern medical science and bacterial evolution. Methicillin, a derivative of penicillin, was first used in clinical practice in the 1950s. Within just a few short years of Methicillin being prescribed, reports of infections with Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) were published. This trend has continued over time. Within five to 10 years of prescribing a new type of antibiotic, we start to see antibiotic resistance to that particular antibiotic. The reason this is problematic is because new antibiotics are not developed fast enough to outcompete bacterial resistance development.

Another thing to remember is that antibiotics can cause negative side effects. In addition to increasing the risk of bacterial resistance, antibiotics can increase a person’s risk of Clostridium Difficile (C.Diff)-associated diarrhea, a potentially life-threatening infection, especially in children. In fact, seven of the top 10 drug reactions or side effects that lead to a pediatric emergency room visit are due to antibiotic use. Just one dose of an antibiotic can alter your natural gut flora and introduce resistant bacteria that can later become problematic.

Inappropriate antibiotic use can be harmful to individuals and cause a ripple effect throughout the community. Here’s what you can do to stay healthy and help us combat antibiotic resistance in Helena, so we can ensure antibiotics are available for generations to come:

Reserve antibiotics for illness caused by bacteria. Most respiratory and sinus infections are viral, and antibiotics can do more harm than good in these situations. If your doctor suspects the cold or flu, he or she may recommend “watchful waiting,” which means delaying an antibiotic prescription and using over-the-counter remedies for treatment. This helps you avoid unnecessary antibiotic exposure.

Remember to take your antibiotic prescriptions as written. This includes taking the right dose, at the right time, and completing the total course prescribed. Do not stop taking the antibiotics even if you feel better.

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Don’t take leftover antibiotics (yours, or someone else’s) to avoid a trip to the doctor. Local pharmacists can suggest over-the-counter remedies to help you feel better, but don’t hesitate to contact your provider if your symptoms worsen or you feel they warrant a closer look.

Working together, we can protect each other and our community from antibiotic misuse and the growing threat of superbugs. It’s up to all of us to make sure antibiotics can continue to cure illness for our kids, grandkids and future generations. For more information regarding antibiotic stewardship, please visit https://www.cdc.gov/drugresistance.

Tom Richardson is a board certified infectious disease pharmacist currently employed at St. Peter's Health. He completed a B.S. in microbiology from Oregon State University and earned a Doctorate of Pharmacy from Pacific University. After graduation, Tom completed a pharmacy practice residency at St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham, Washington. Richardson provides education on antibiotic use both locally and regionally, and in 2015 helped establish the antimicrobial stewardship program at St. Peter’s Health. The program includes collaboration between patients and the medical community to provide education on appropriate antibiotic use.

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