I want to address an abuse of one of the greatest medical discoveries of the last century. This epidemic has rapidly become one of the most critical public health concerns of our time. You are probably thinking that I am talking about the abuse of illegal drugs and painkillers, but I am not. I am talking about the misuse of antibiotics.
Every year, our families face their share of colds, sore throats, and stomach aches. When we do, we expect our doctors to prescribe us something to cure it. Leaving the doctor empty-handed seems like a rip-off. After all, what did we even visit the doctor for if they are not going to hand us an antibiotic or some cure in pill form? As it turns out, leaving the doctor's office without that pill shaped treatment could be the best thing for us.
Antibiotics, discovered in the 1940’s, have been one of the greatest advances in modern medicine. However, their use has not been without its pitfalls. To understand these issues, it helps to know about the pathogens (better known as “germs”) that make people sick. There are many microorganisms that can act as pathogens. These include eukaryotic fungi, protozoans, and amoebas; the numerous prokaryotic archaea and bacteria; and even the not-quite-alive viruses, prions, and viroids. Certain microorganisms will cause diseases with similar symptoms, but the ways these types of "germs" multiply and spread illness can be extremely different. The two most common among them are bacteria and viruses.
Bacteria are single-celled living organisms. They tend to form large groups know as colonies, and these colonies are everywhere. The number of bacteria on the ocean floor alone is estimated to outnumber humans ten-million-trillion to one. Less than one percent of all bacteria species make humans and other animals their homes, and even out of those, most don't cause any harm. In fact, humans have a symbiotic relationship with many bacteria. Lactobacillus is just one of the types of bacteria that lives in our intestines and helps digest our food. Only a small percentage of these organisms cause diseases in humans, either by creating toxins that are harmful to us or by attacking our cells and tissues directly. Antibiotics target bacteria by destroying their cell walls, or by stopping their growth and reproduction. Some of these antibiotics work on pathogens other than bacteria, and can even be harmful to humans, but they only work on living things.
Viruses are not alive. Well, depending on which definition of “life” you use. We'll try to avoid the biological and philosophical debate on the meaning of life in this article. Viruses fall somewhere in the gray area between your high school chemistry and biology classes. They cannot exist independent of cellular life, meaning you and me, my dog, and that colony of bacteria that made me queasy last week. They have no organs, organelles, nuclei or any structures that can produce a biochemical reaction on their own. They are just protein capsules containing genetic material, like a microscopic pill containing DNA or RNA. Viruses reproduce only by hijacking living cells, and while many do not affect humans, every virus is, by its very nature, a pathogen- designed to attack a particular species or multiple species. It is important to remember that antibiotics have no effect on viruses. Many immunizations have been developed to help our bodies defend against them, but the only real offense against them is the antibodies our immune systems produce.
Antibiotics do not work on viruses, yet for many years it was common practice to prescribe them, "just in case." If your doctor was not sure whether a viral or bacterial infection was making you ill, the easy answer was to dole out some antibiotics. If your illness was bacterial in nature, congratulations! Problem solved. If not, no big deal. It is not as if the antibiotics have made the situation worse, right? Wrong. Here come those pitfalls.
Every time you take an antibiotic for a real or perceived bacterial infection, you are giving the bacterial pathogens in your body a chance to adapt. Bacteria breed rapidly and tend to have relatively short lifespans. It is due to these traits that bacterial colonies provide us with an opportunity to watch natural selection in action, as more and more so-called superbugs- such as MRSA, VRSA, and MDR-TB- are appearing. In fact, the bacteria that cause infections of the ear, throat, sinuses and skin, as well as meningitis, pneumonia and tuberculosis have all developed drug-resistant strains.
After a patient has completed a course of antibiotics- or worse, stopped taking their antibiotics because they "feel better"- they have killed many of the bacteria in their bodies. Those that managed to survive are either lucky or they have genetic traits unique to the bacterium, such as a slight difference in the proteins that make up their cell walls. In the aftermath of the antibiotic onslaught, these bacteria now have less competition for resources and more room to repopulate. They then begin a new exponential growth phase, passing on the genetic trait that allowed them to survive to all of their descendants.
The notion of "superbugs", capable of spreading rapidly and without a viable means of combating them can be frightening. However, if that does not trouble you (what are you, a Spartan?), "superbugs" aren't the only issue. Different antibiotics affect different cell structures, but pathogens are not the only cells affected; all cells that have the structure the antibiotic interacts with will be affected. Remember all of those bacterial strains that work symbiotically with your body? A course of antibiotics will destroy many of them, just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Those poor bacteria! More importantly, poor you! Wiping out your body's Lactobacillus colonies can leave you feeling just as sick as your initial infection. What's worse is that many of the helpful bacteria were providing pathogens with a fierce competition for resources. After that competition is gone, the door is opened for particularly nasty germs, such as C. diff., to move in and wreak havoc upon you.
Good hygiene makes for great preventive medicine. Wash your hands thoroughly, using both soap and water. This is especially important after using the toilet, changing a diaper and before and after handling raw meat or poultry. Indeed, it’s best to wash our hands before eating, preparing food or touching our mouth or eyes. And don't forget to keep food preparation areas clean!
The next best preventive medicine to good hygiene is good health. Make sure you are getting a good night's rest. Keep your stress levels to a minimum. Eat a healthy, nutritious diet and, of course, make sure you supplement with VitaMist, the finest vitamins in the world!