(WOMENSENEWS)—When I read about the first “superbug” resistant to all antibiotics it made me think about how I unwittingly added to this medical crisis and affected my own health by taking antibiotics when I didn’t need to.
And when I further learned of the extent to which primary care physicians prescribe significantly more antibiotics to women than men—between 36 to 40 percent higher, depending on the age group–I was sure this is a special topic for women to discuss.
When I was in my 20s, I was diagnosed as having a mitral valve prolapse, a relatively rare (2 percent of the adult population) and usually asymptomatic abnormality of a heart valve. The only serious problem with a mitral valve prolapse is that it can allow bacteria to get into your heart, and an infection in your heart can be serious. I was told by both my internist and dentist that I would need to take antibiotics to prevent the bacteria that gets stirred up during teeth cleaning and dental work from getting into my heart.
Unfortunately, it never dawned on me that I should research this myself or get a second opinion to see if the risk was great enough to justify taking antibiotics. So for the next 40 plus years I took amoxicillin before and after I had my teeth cleaned. Over those years, I was advised that the amount of amoxicillin to take had been reduced, and when I quit taking it, the recommendation had been reduced to only one dose of the antibiotic. Then not-so-ironically I went to a cardiologist about four years ago who told me I did not have a mitral valve prolapse and had been misdiagnosed.
Even if my diagnosis had been correct, I would still have regrets. Today the medical establishment no longer recommends routinely taking antibiotics prior to dental work for most people with mitral valve prolapse. In fact, there isn’t much compelling evidence that taking antibiotics before dental visits actually prevented infection even in at-risk people.
Tables Have Turned
The tables have turned on what was once thought to be harmless. Now medical experts are turning up the volume on their alarm about antibiotic overuse that has contributed to antibiotic resistant infections. In May, the first “superbug” resistant to all antibiotics was reported in the U.S.
At least 2 million people are infected by drug-resistant bacteria each year, leading to at least 23,000 deaths, according to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tom Frieden, the organization’s director, warns “the medicine cabinet is empty for some patients.” There are already drug-resistant forms of tuberculosis, gonorrhea and staph infections.
For those of us who have overused antibiotics, we can be more susceptible to bacterial infections (having destroyed the healthy gut flora we need). But now the same drugs that would have cured the infection previously are no longer effective and can actually make the infection worse. It is both a personal and a public health problem.
Antibiotics per se are not the enemy. They have been miracle drugs for nearly a century, destroying many of the harmful bacteria that make people sick. The reason the antibiotics in our arsenal are no longer effective is largely due to their use when not warranted. In fact, the way we have been using antibiotics is actually helping to create new drug-resistant bacteria.
When we take an antibiotic for a virus like the flu, against which it has no effect, instead of getting rid of the flu, the antibiotic destroys a wide variety of bacteria, including the good kind. Bacteria that survive can then grow and multiply, and spread to other people.
As more and more people take antibiotics when not necessary, the drug-resistant bacteria continue to multiply, thrive and spread. Scientists have found that these drug-resistant bacteria can share their traits with other bacteria. Antibiotics become less effective or may not work at all to kill these new superbugs.
In my case, I just went along with what my providers recommended. But many times doctors are pressured into prescribing antibiotics by patients or parents who are looking for a quick fix for a sore throat or cold.
In spite of all the evidence, patients are still asking for, and doctors are still prescribing, antibiotics that are unnecessary. In a new major study on the use and misuse of antibiotics in the U.S., it was found that nearly a third of antibiotics prescribed in doctors’ offices, emergency rooms and clinics are unnecessary. The study estimated that about 47 million unnecessary prescriptions are written each year, mostly for colds, sore throats, bronchitis, flu and other viral illnesses that do not respond to antibiotic treatment.
We are now experiencing the results of taking all these unneeded antibiotics. I have focused on the public health issues, but there are other effects of antibiotic overuse on individuals’ health, such as permanently altering good gut bacteria.
It’s possible that some of my current physical problems, such as sinus infections, yeast infections and autoimmune diseases, have been caused by or contributed to by antibiotic overuse.
Based on the recent prescribing data, women may be disproportionately affected by overuse of antibiotics. Clostridium difficile (“C. diff”), asthma, obesity and cancer have all been called into question as possible results of too many courses of antibiotics.
I don’t want to blame my physician or my dentist for my unnecessary use of antibiotics. As patients, we all need to take responsibility for the current situation of infections that now cannot be treated with the antibiotics we have. It’s up to me to challenge my medical providers to discuss and justify the use of any medication and to do my own research before I take any prescription drug. And it’s up to all of us to not ask for and expect antibiotics to cure the flu and other common viral infections.