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How Antibiotic Resistance Happens

Antibiotic resistance is more than just a theory: With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimating that each year at least 2 million people in the U.S. get an antibiotic-resistant infection, it’s clear that this problem is very real. But how does antibiotic resistance happen in the first place? Watch this short video from the CDC to learn the basics:

Let’s take a closer look at each step of the process.

1. Some Germs Are Resistant to Antibiotics

The earth is full of bacteria: Bacteria have been around much longer than humans, and over the course of billions of years they’ve evolved and multiplied in great numbers.

In fact, the human body alone contains an estimated 39 trillion bacterial cells, according to a 2016 study by the Weizmann Institute in Israel. That means that your body has more bacterial cells than it does human cells, by a ratio of about 1.3:1.

What’s more, bacteria can reproduce (and thus evolve) at an astounding rate, with some able to divide every four minutes, according to the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

So, it makes sense that when the first true antibiotic, penicillin, was discovered in 1928, scientists almost immediately observed the presence of penicillin-resistant bacteria. By 1940, researchers had already discovered the existence of a bacterial enzyme capable of destroying penicillin, one year before penicillin was even used to treat humans.

2. Antibiotics Kill Both Good and Bad Bacteria

While antibiotics have saved the lives of millions of people, they do have their faults. In addition to killing harmful bacteria and curing life-threatening infections, antibiotics also kill good bacteria.

The benefits of certain types of bacteria have been known to humans for thousands of years. In ancient Egypt, moldy bread was even used to treat superficial infections, according to researchers at the University of Sheffield.

Later, Nobel laureate Élie Metchnikoff promoted the consumption of bacteria-rich yogurt, and today, probiotics can be found on the shelves of every grocery, drug and health store.

Unfortunately, antibiotics don’t discriminate when it comes to the elimination of bacteria, and both good and bad microbes are killed when antibiotics are taken, including those that might otherwise help prevent the body from infection.

When antibiotics kill off the majority of the body’s bacteria, the antibiotic-resistant bacteria can stick around.

3. Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Grow and Take Over

After the body’s bacteria is killed off from antibiotics, the remaining antibiotic-resistant bacteria can cause infections that can’t be easily cured.

For example, if you take antibiotics for an ear infection, the infection could come back thanks to the leftover antibiotic-resistant bacteria, leaving you with a recurring ear infection.

This is why it’s especially important to finish your entire antibiotic prescription. If you stop as soon as you start to feel better, you’ll be giving the bacteria a chance to develop antibiotic resistance.

The problems don’t end there, though. With the body’s good bacteria killed off, your body may be less able to fight off other infections, because good bacteria works in tandem with your immune system to help fight off bad bacteria.

4. Bacteria Pass On Their Antibiotic Resistance

As mentioned earlier, bacteria reproduce at a staggering rate. This means that in the absence of good bacteria, antibiotic-resistant bad bacteria is able to freely reproduce and pass on its antibiotic-resistant traits to subsequent generations of microbes.

The result is an ever-growing population of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can cause infections that are increasingly difficult to cure. Some of these bacteria are resistant to only one type of antibiotic, while others can withstand multiple kinds.

For instance, the CDC cites the following antibiotic-resistant bacteria as the biggest threats:

  • Clostridioides difficile: More commonly known as C. diff, this bacteria causes potentially fatal diarrhea and colon inflammation (colitis), and is especially common in people who have recently received medical treatment and taken antibiotics. C. diff kills approximately 15,000 people each year.
  • Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE): Ominously referred to as the nightmare bacteria, CRE bacteria are resistant to almost all antibiotics. People who get CRE are usually being treated for another severe condition, or are receiving long-term medical care. CRE kills about 600 people per year.
  • Drug-resistant Neisseria gonorrhoeae: N. gonorrhoeae is responsible for the widely-known STD gonorrhea and has become increasingly antibiotic-resistant over time. According to the CDC, a shocking thirty percent of new gonorrhea infections each year are resistant to one or more drugs.

Antibiotic resistance is undoubtedly one of the most urgent public health crises of today. With doctors warning of an oncoming “antibiotic apocalypse,” it’s more important than ever to understand how antibiotic resistance happens so we can all do our part to prevent it.

To avoid creating antibiotic-resistant bacteria, always:

  • Confirm with your doctor that you have a bacterial infection.
  • Take your entire antibiotic prescription as directed.
  • Refrain from pressuring your doctor to prescribe antibiotics.
  • Get properly vaccinated against bacterial infections.
  • Observe good health practices to avoid getting sick in the first place.

Want to learn more? Click here to discover the eight things you need to know about smart antibiotic use.

If you’re feeling under the weather and aren’t sure if you need antibiotics or not, walk-in or save your spot online at your nearest GoHealth Urgent Care Center:

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