What Is Antibiotic Resistance?

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Antibiotic resistance happens when bacteria (germs) develop ways to survive the medications designed to kill them. Misuse and overuse of these antibiotic medications have contributed to antibiotic resistance, which global health agencies have deemed an urgent threat to public health.

When a person becomes infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, antibiotics are no longer as effective in stopping the infection. This makes treatment difficult and increases the risk of spreading the antibiotic-resistant infection to others.

Fortunately, experts have identified ways to help prevent antibiotic resistance from growing into an even bigger problem.

Antibiotic sensistivity testing for bacterial cuture

Sinhyu / iStock / Getty Images

What Are Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria?

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are germs that can no longer be controlled or killed by an antibiotic medication. This resistance develops when bacteria change or alter in a way that makes antibiotics less effective.

Antibiotic resistance occurs naturally when bacteria evolve and develop defense mechanisms to survive a changing environment, but experts say that misuse of antibiotics is speeding up the process dangerously.

A growing number of bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics, including those that cause skin infections, urinary tract infections, meningitis, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and respiratory tract infections such as pneumonia.

To be clear, it's the bacteria, not humans, that become antibiotic-resistant. In other words, antibiotic resistance does not mean that the human body becomes resistant to antibiotics. It means that the bacteria are resistant to antibiotics.

Prevention

Infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria can be difficult to treat, and they can affect virtually anyone. While it may not be likely to eliminate antibiotic resistance, there are ways to help prevent the issue from becoming more severe.

Some of these prevention methods include avoiding the overprescription of antibiotics, stopping the spread of bacterial infections, choosing foods carefully, handling and preparing food safely, and being mindful of overusing antibacterial household products.

In 2020, the U.S. government updated its national plan to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Among the plan's goals, federal health agencies are aiming to lower the number of antibiotic-resistant infections and develop new antibiotic drugs within the next several years.

Avoid Unnecessary Medication

Overprescribing antibiotics is a major driver of antibiotic resistance. Antibiotics can be lifesaving drugs for bacterial infections. But they are sometimes prescribed and used unnecessarily for viral infections such as colds, coughs, the flu, and viral sore throats.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at least 47 million antibiotic prescriptions each year in U.S. healthcare providers' offices and emergency departments are unnecessary. This overuse leads to more bacteria developing the ability to resist antibiotics.

You can help avoid unnecessary prescriptions by using antibiotics properly with the following tips:

  • Don’t take an antibiotic for a virus (such as a cold or the flu).
  • Don’t save an antibiotic for future use.
  • Never take an antibiotic prescribed for someone else.
  • Take antibiotics exactly as prescribed.

If your healthcare provider suggests an antibiotic, they'll be able to discuss with you why it's necessary for treatment and help you distinguish between bacterial symptoms and viral symptoms.

It's important to take antibiotics exactly as prescribed by your healthcare provider. Skipping doses or stopping treatment too soon—even if you're feeling better—allows the remaining bacteria to continue thriving, which leads to antibiotic resistance.

Stop the Spread of Bacterial Infection

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria spread just like other bacteria, through exposure to someone infected with the bacteria, encountering the bacteria in the environment, or consuming contaminated food or water.

Generally speaking, there are some healthy hygiene habits that can help protect you from infections and stop antibiotic-resistant germs from spreading, including:

Healthcare providers and hospital systems also play a role in helping stop the spread of antibiotic-resistant infections, since these bacteria are common in healthcare settings. Healthcare provider and other healthcare professionals do this by using thorough techniques to control infection and maintaining good hygiene.

Eliminate Meat Raised With Antibiotics

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can spread not only person-to-person but also through animals and the food supply. Experts say regular use of antibiotics in farm animals is a contributor to antibiotic resistance.

In fact, in 2017, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended that the food industry stop routinely using antibiotics in healthy animals as a way to promote growth and prevent disease.

For example, when farmers use antibiotics to treat livestock, antibiotic-resistant bacteria can survive in the animals' bodies and remain present when sold in grocery stores. As well, these bacteria can contaminate other products through contact with livestock waste and wastewater.

Because of this, experts underscore the importance of trying to buy meat that is antibiotic-free whenever possible. Check the package label for wording such as "raised without antibiotics,” "no antibiotics administered," and in some cases "organic."

You might also work toward minimizing the amount of meat in your diet or eliminating it altogether.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can make their way to humans through animals and the food supply in a few ways. These bacterial infections can be contracted by:

  • Handling food that is raw, undercooked, or contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria
  • Coming into contact with animal waste, either directly or through the water system or environment
  • Not thoroughly washing hands after touching animals

Use Antibacterial Products Appropriately

Though antibacterial products, such as liquid soaps, body washes, detergents, and cleaning sprays, have been marketed as being able to kill germs more effectively than regular soaps, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has shown concern that their use may lead to antibiotic resistance.

The agency banned 24 antibacterial agents from being sold over the counter (OTC) in consumer products without federal approval, citing triclosan (TCS) and triclocarban (TCC) as the two most commonly used in the United States.

According to the FDA, manufacturers of these products have not proven that they're safe to use long term—or that they're more effective than regular soap and water. Further, some studies have suggested that TCS contributes significantly to antibiotic resistance.

Experts agree that washing your hands with plain soap and water is still the best way to prevent common bacterial infections. That's because soap doesn't kill bacteria on its own, but rather it helps loosen dirt and germs, and assists the water in removing them from your skin.

It's important to point out that the FDA ban doesn't apply to antibacterial soaps used in hospitals. Cleaning agents like TCS are often used in healthcare settings for surgical site infections and to reduce the risk of transmitting antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

Diagnosis

Infections from antibiotic-resistant bacteria can affect almost any part of the body, which means they can cause different symptoms. These infections can range from more minor illnesses such as strep throat and ear infections to more serious or life-threatening conditions like meningitis and encephalitis.

Contact your healthcare provider or healthcare professional about any persistent symptoms of infection, and seek immediate medical attention for severe or worsening symptoms.

If an infection is suspected, a healthcare professional will usually conduct a physical examination and medical history, including a list of your current medications. A swab or sample of blood, urine, tissue, or another fluid may be taken for culture and sensitivity testing.

Sometimes antibiotic resistance is detected during the initial diagnostic workup of the cause of an infection. But another scenario is that an infection doesn't improve as expected with treatment.

The sample is sent to a laboratory for tests to isolate and identify the bacteria. Clinical lab professionals will then expose the bacteria to various antibiotics to see if any of them can kill the germs.

If the bacteria continue to grow in the presence of these antibiotics, this means that the bacteria are likely antibiotic-resistant. If the bacteria are killed off, it can likely be treated with antibiotics. Your healthcare provider will be able to diagnose your infection based on the test results.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 2019 report on antibiotic-resistance threats outlines germs that pose the biggest dangers. It lists the following germs as urgent threats:

Treatment

Antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections are difficult to treat, and can sometimes be impossible. Duration of treatment will depend on the type of infection and where on the body it's located.

Treatment may take place in the hospital, home, or rehabilitation facility. Specific medications used will vary based on the exact type of antibiotic-resistant infection. They are usually treated with one or more antibiotics.

If antibiotics are not effective for the particular infection, supportive treatment may be an option. This is when the patient receives medication and care for symptoms such as fever, pain, swelling, coughing, or dehydration until they show signs of improvement.

A Word From Verywell

Antibiotics have saved countless lives, but any time you use them unnecessarily, it can contribute to the development and spread of antibiotic resistance. As WHO points out, antibiotic resistance leads to longer hospital stays, higher medical costs, and more deaths caused by bacterial infections.

In the United States, it is estimated that there are more than 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections and 35,000 deaths each year.

It's not a good idea to take an antibiotic "just in case" you have a bacterial infection or to reuse an old prescription unnecessarily. In addition to contributing to antibiotic resistance, remember that your infection could get worse or you could experience potentially serious side effects if you use the wrong medication.

Always discuss symptoms of a bacterial infection with your healthcare provider or other healthcare professional, who can help guide you to an appropriate course of treatment for your condition.

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24 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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