Updated 25 January 2017

4 ways you could be wrong about antibiotics

What would we do without antibiotics? And what happens when bacteria fight back?


It may be a simple scratchy throat or a troublesome tummy bug – whatever your ailment, your trusty antibiotic always sorts you out. But what if the bacteria simply get stronger and fight back? 

Think of antibiotic resistance as survival of the fittest. The strongest or most resistant bacteria will survive and multiply, and the sensitive or weak bacteria will die. It happens when an antibiotic has lost its ability to control or kill bacteria. 

When antibiotics enter your body the following can happen:

• Bacteria change in a way that reduces or removes the effectiveness of the antibiotics in curing your illness.
• Bacteria survive and continue to multiply, causing more harm.
• Bacteria develop the ability to neutralise the antibiotic before it can harm them.
• Bacteria pump the antibiotics out of your body.
• Sensitive bacteria can also obtain resistance genes from other bacteria to protect themselves.

Antibiotic resistance is mainly driven by misconceptions on usage, so if taken correctly, antibiotic resistance will be significantly lowered. 

1. If I feel better, I can stop my antibiotics.

If you are taking the antibiotic for a bacterial infection, then the shorter the time you are on an antibiotic the better. If you stop your antibiotics early, or if you miss doses, then the amount of antibiotic available to kill the bacteria is not enough and the bacteria will still be able to replicate. It is easier for bacteria to become resistant if there is too little antibiotic available.

Read: What are 'superfoods' and am I getting enough nutrients in my diet?

2. I need to take antibiotics for a cold or flu.

Antibiotics are only active against bacteria. The common cold and flu are caused by viruses against which antibiotics have no effect. The more antibiotics we use, the more resistant bacteria will increase.

3. I can take leftover antibiotics.

Never take antibiotics that are left over from past treatments or given by family or friends. Only take antibiotics prescribed by a doctor or nurse. Antibiotics past their date are more likely to cause resistance as the active ingredient may be damaged. Different antibiotics are used to treat different infections, so your infection will not be treated correctly if you use any antibiotics available. You will increase the chance that the bacteria can become resistant.

4. Resistance can only happen with repeated courses.

Antibiotic resistance can happen whether you have single course or multiple repeat courses. The more courses you take, the more resistance can occur. The imbalance of taking a single course of antibiotics can allow dangerous bacteria to take over your body and cause severe diarrhoeal illnesses.

Good to know

According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in America, antibiotics for colds, flu, sore throats, bronchitis, and sinus or ear infections:

• Will not cure the infection.
• Will not keep other people from getting sick.
• Will not help you or your child feel better.
• May cause unnecessary and harmful side effects.
• May contribute to antibiotic resistance, which is when bacteria are able to resist the effects of an antibiotic and continue to cause harm.

Read more:

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Why it’s still worth getting the flu vaccine this year in SA

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