Explainer: What you can do to fight antibiotic resistance

Here’s a list of tips that leading health agencies recommend to help antibiotics remain effective longer

People with a cough and fever likely have a viral infection. Antibiotics do not kill viruses, so people with these infections should find other ways to help their bodies heal. 

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Antibiotics are wonder drugs. They can cure infections that used to commonly kill people. In recent years, however, many of the bacteria that these medicines used to wipe out are finding ways to survive. That means potentially killer infections are cropping up more often. There are still a few medicines that seem to quash resistant germs. The number of drugs in this category, however, has been falling. Doctors tend to avoid using these drugs — which they call the “last line of defense” — until they find that other drugs aren’t working. Meanwhile, biologists and engineers are working to develop new antibiotic treatments.

But in this crusade to fight antibiotic resistance, everyone has a role to play. Here are some tips on what you can do:

  • Use antibiotics wisely. Don’t expect the doctor to prescribe antibiotics every time you get a cough or fever. Viruses cause many of these, and antibiotics don’t kill viruses. Also keep in mind that even for some infections caused by bacteria, antibiotics aren’t needed. You will often get better just as quickly without taking these medicines. Be patient, though — some coughs can take three to four weeks to clear.
  • Learn how to deal with viral infections. Don’t pressure your doctor for antibiotics if it appears that you have a viral infection, with a cough, fever and chills. Instead, get plenty of rest and drink fluids as your immune system tackles the infection. Over-the-counter medications might help relieve symptoms as your body fights off the infection.
  • Take antibiotics exactly as prescribed. Follow the labeled instructions precisely. And even as you start to feel better, continue taking the rest of this medicine. Some infections aren’t truly gone when you start to feel better. If you don’t finish the last of your medicine, you allow some still-lingering germs to develop resistance. Now, if you spread them by sneezing, coughing or touching a surface with germy hands, antibiotics may not help the next person who becomes infected (and it could be a friend or family member).
  • Never take antibiotics that were prescribed for someone else. That medicine may not be right for your illness. Taking the wrong medicine may delay your recovery and allow bacteria to multiply — perhaps developing resistance along the way.
  • Never take antibiotics without a prescription. In many countries, a prescription is not needed to get these medicines. You are unlikely to know which, if any, will help your particular infection. And taking antibiotics when you don’t need them contributes to the development of resistance.
  • Stay at home when you’re sick. Prevent the spread of your germs by avoiding contact with others, by washing your hands frequently and by getting the rest that your body needs to heal.

Esther Landhuis is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. She worked on her high school newspaper and spent a decade studying biology before discovering a career that combines writing and science.

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